One couple’s same-sex race to get married fueled by love, loss and the Supreme Court

Not long after sunset on the last day of Pride month, Herz’s towering pink and white sign clicks on and is filled with light, announcing that Alabama’s only lesbian bar is again ready for business.

Underneath the sign, a woman wearing a plaid shirt and jeans takes a drag of her cigarette and a sip of whisky. Sitting side-saddle on her parked dark red Harley Davidson Freewheeler, she gestures toward the door of the brown and cream-colored bar that was a dive bar and restaurant in a past life.

“The happy couple is inside,” she says as the faint sound of music and laughter drifts out the door into the summer evening sky.

Inside, the bartender pours shots for Mandy Lee and Renee MacLennan, who had married earlier that day, a date they urgently moved up from Dec. 16, 2023.

“We couldn’t wait,” says MacLennan, 47, sitting next to her new wife on the bar’s back patio. “When Clarence Thomas said the Supreme Court should consider overturning gay marriage and other rights, I was like, ‘No, we’re not doing this again. I was there in 2015 and wasn’t about to let this moment pass forever. So I did what had to be done,” she added, looking directly at a smiling Lee.

“She rolled over in bed this morning and asked me to marry her,” said Lee, as she grabbed her partner’s hand.

As with MacLennan and Lee, Thomas’ words sent lightning bolts of fear down the backs of many people in the LGBTQ community and its allies. In his concurring opinion of the decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, a 1973 opinion that granted the right to abortions nationwide, Thomas said the ideological thinking backing other historical Supreme Court opinions, like gay marriage, was “demonstrably erroneous.”

His opinion also set off alarm bells around other rights Americans have enjoyed for decades, including the right of married people to receive contraceptives and for anyone to engage in private, consensual sexual acts. Notably, Thomas, whose wife, Ginni, is white did not refer to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision allowing interracial couples to marry, which was decided, in part, using the same precedents as the other cases he mentioned. However, that particular right is also protected by the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, meaning that it is essentially doubly protected from judicial scrutiny.

Still, the omission caused a widespread backlash against Thomas, considered the most conservative justice on the nine-member Supreme Court.

Sydney Duncan, an attorney specializing in representing members of the LGBTQ community, said the decision “has a lot of people scared,” according to an Associated Press report from earlier this month. While any challenge to the landmark Obergefell vs. Hodges decision in 2015 would likely take years of legal wrangling before reaching the chambers of the Supreme Court, according to the AP report, there is still an uneasiness among queer couples. “Why would couples wait?” said Lee. “The newer judges on the [Supreme] Court told us the right to an abortion was safe. It wasn’t.” Brought together by loss and married by fear, Lee and MacLennan’s rowdy friends take shot after shot of brown and clear spirits. The newly married couple quietly walks out to the bar’s small dancefloor. Hand in hand, they dance to Sara Bareilles’s song, “I Choose You,” about deliverance from darker times and finding lifelong love in the process.

The song encapsulates the trauma that both MacLennan and Lee have separately endured in recent years before coming to this happy moment.

Lee lost her partner, Laura Lynn Echols, to brain cancer in early April 2021 after a near-two year fight. They had been together for 20 years.

“I grieved her while she was declining,” said Lee, who personally cared for Echols through her treatment as she lost the ability to walk, speak and eat. “I was an emotional wreck but also relieved that she was no longer in that state of being a prisoner of her body.”

“It took me a good four months to come to terms with how to exist without her,” she added. “But I always hear her telling me, ‘Don’t grieve me and move on with your life. I want to look down and see you happy.’ She was the greatest human ever, and I miss her every single day.” MacLennan is also on her third kidney transplant and recently underwent a rejection episode, but is currently stable.

MacLennan and Lee met on Facebook in September 2021 after MacLennan entered a pet portrait giveaway to promote Lee’s art business. “I was looking at all the people who entered,” said Lee. “And to be honest, I thought she was really cute, but I picked someone else cause I felt guilty selecting her just because she was cute.”

“She put up the friendship wall at first, so it took me a little time to climb over it,” Lee said, giggling.

And when Lee and MacLennan finally decided to go steady in late November last year, Echols’ family blessed and encouraged their relationship.

“I do not have contact with my biological family anymore, just Laura’s. They are my family now and one of my most precious connections to her. They are very happy for me. For us both,” Lee said.

A community looking over its shoulder

Still, there are collective concerns that the LGBTQ community could now be headed backward after decades of progression.

“I’m already Black and queer,” said Ziyuna Grady, 22, who was at the bar with her partner Grace Reid, 21. “And now I don’t have the choice to operate my body as I want to, so it feels like life is already against me and going to get worse.”

The interracial couple is seriously considering moving abroad. They have done basic research on the European Union and the United Kingdom, which have significant legal protections around abortion, gay marriage, and other rights potentially threatened in the U.S. “I know this sounds crazy, but what if they separated us?” said Reid. “I’m white, and she’s Black. These are the things that worry us.”

While changes to same-sex marriage laws may not come for some time, fears around its continued existence are omnipresent.

But for now, the married couple will revel in their hard-won union.

“It’s their first night of marriage,” said one of their friends. “They have better things to do.”

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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