Robin McGehee and Karen Johnston are school-girl giddy as they look out at their picturesque foothill property near Millerton Lake and point out the spot where they will exchange vows, the under-construction cocktail bar and the concrete slab dotted with trees where they will dance the night away under twinkling lights.
They are in major wedding-planning mode after a whirlwind romance this past year.
The two women say they are lucky to live in a state where same-sex couples can marry, something they don’t take for granted. In between cake tastings and gown fittings for their June wedding, this power couple — McGehee, a nationally known gay rights activist, and Johnston, a local business owner — continue working toward nationwide marriage equality.
A month ago, the couple and McGehee’s two children — Sebastian, 12 and Jackson, 8 — were in Washington, D.C., where McGehee spoke on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court the day judges heard oral arguments on whether the Constitution protects the rights of same-sex couples nationwide to marry. At the center of the case is whether same-sex marriage bans are legal in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee; 36 states have legalized gay marriage.
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That the nation’s attention is again focused on the issue of gay marriage just as McGehee and Johnston plan theirs is mere coincidence. So is the likelihood that a potentially game-changing Supreme Court decision will come the same week as their union — the end of June, when the court’s term ends.
None of this is lost on McGehee, who teaches communications at Visalia-based College of the Sequoias.
“There’s a certain sense of bittersweet,” said McGehee, of her upcoming nuptials. “You’re getting a luxury and privilege that not everyone has.”
McGehee has been at the forefront of the marriage equality fight as organizer of California’s Meet in the Middle for Equality rally in 2009 that drew thousands to Fresno — including Hollywood celebrities like Charlize Theron — to protest California’s then-ban on same-sex marriage under Proposition 8. Later in 2009, she helped lead the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. After the national march, she co-founded GetEQUAL, a national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group.
So, it should come as no surprise that the guest list for the McGehee-Johnston wedding is a who’s who of those who have led the charge for marriage equality. As one invited guest put it: “This is gay royalty” getting married.
Roughly 300 family and friends are expected to attend the nuptials. Invited guests include Dan Choi, a former U.S. Army soldier, who was arrested with McGehee in 2010 when they chained themselves to the White House fence to protest the government’s since-repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy for gays. (He and McGehee were later invited back by President Barack Obama when he signed documents repealing the law.)
Also, Cleve Jones, who worked with and was mentored by San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, that city’s first openly gay elected official who was killed in 1978. And, Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL. Presiding over the exchange of vows will be Father Geoff Farrow, who made headlines of his own in 2008 in Fresno when he refused to support the Catholic Church’s position on Proposition 8.
At the time, Farrow granted a television interview voicing his disagreement with the church’s stance on same-sex marriage and revealed to the reporter that he is gay. It took place just before Sunday Mass in a move that sent shock waves through the St. Paul Newman Center parish and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.
McGehee and Farrow became good friends over the years; he also was arrested with her during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” White House protest. Farrow has been living in the Los Angeles area in recent years. He maintains a blog and has kept busy presiding over weddings, mostly gay but some straight, as a minister of the Universal Life Church.
“She is a very brave woman,” Farrow said of McGehee, noting she has received death threats for her activism. She is especially courageous, he said, because she is working from a more conservative place like the Valley.
He said he is thrilled for McGehee and Johnston and glad to be involved in their wedding.
“It’s an exceptionally rare thing to find a person you love, who loves you. This (marriage) commitment is the greatest thing you can bestow and receive,” said Farrow, who wishes more gays had the same opportunity.
For McGehee and Johnston, theirs is a story of deep love. And the culmination and demonstration of that love is the right to marry, they said.
Both women have been married before, back in their 20s to men, when they still had not come out and may have been trying to fit in. McGehee later married Fresno State professor Kathy Adams, the other mom to Sebastian and Jackson. McGehee and Adams are on good terms and co-parent their son and daughter, conceived with a donor who is still part of their lives.
But this marriage, said McGehee and Johnston, is the real deal — true love if there ever was.
“I cannot wait to tell the world how much I adore her and I adore her babies,” said Johnston, vice president of family-owned Floyd Johnston Construction Co.
The two women met at the Meet in the Middle rally in Fresno when Johnston was taking photos to help a friend. She was fixated on the passionate speaker, McGehee, who was more than annoyed that Johnston’s camera seemed to stay on her instead of the event.
At one point, McGehee said to Johnston, “Please stop taking my picture.” Johnston said she couldn’t help herself: “I was just enchanted. … I wanted to be friends with her. She’s amazing.”
They traveled in some of the same circles and ran into each other at events and art shows. Johnston is also an industrial artist and craftsperson, who works mostly with metals.
They became friends. Then, they fell in love. “There’s no denying love,” said McGehee.
As their relationship bloomed, they talked about marriage. McGehee made it known she wanted a romantic proposal and wanted to be surprised. And Sebastian and Jackson insisted they had to be involved.
Johnston cemented the deal when she kept McGehee away from home one day and had her nieces lay out the romantic proposal at the home the two women shared.
Johnston later led McGehee back into their house where printed emails the two women had exchanged over their courtship were laid out in a beautiful path on the floor, surrounded by candles and rose petals. The love notes led to a ring and a note that read: “Marry me. Yes. I will. I do.”
“It was an out-of-body experience,” said McGehee.
Because Sebastian and Jackson weren’t with them for the private proposal, they had to re-create the whole scenario the next day so they wouldn’t feel left out. The children were also told they could invite their own special guest to the wedding; they chose Taylor Swift, whose address was obtained through a few connections. No word if the megastar will show up.
Court decision looms
Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco who has known McGehee for about five years, said this wedding at this time is perfect. Even though he and McGehee haven’t always agreed on how to get things done in the equality movement, he said he respects McGehee and considers her a good friend.
“Robin has been such a passionate voice for equality and freedom and has played a major role in bringing us to this day. It is only fitting that she should have the happiness of celebrating her own marriage at the same time that we hope to be securing that freedom for the entire country,” said Minter, one of the attorneys representing the Tennessee plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case.
As their wedding countdown continues, McGehee and Johnston hope other same-sex couples will get to experience the joy they are feeling.
“I definitely feel this excitement and I’m eager to get to this moment. But there’s also a little bit of anxiousness I feel if the Supreme Court comes back with a ruling that denies friends and family the right to marry,” said McGehee.
If the decision goes against gay marriage — something McGehee doesn’t think will happen — she said plans for the wedding won’t change, but there will be a different feeling in the air as some of the guests are from states currently denied gay marriage.
And, if the decision is in favor of gay marriage? Said McGehee: “It’s definitely going to be a party.”
Tracy Correa is a former Fresno Bee reporter who now works in corporate communications.