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January 28, 2016

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Sharon Bishop-Baldwin and Mary Baldwin-Bishop

Kate Hart

There's no better way to kick off 2016 than with the first Badass Ladies profile to make me cry: Meet Sharon Bishop-Baldwin and Mary Baldwin-Bishop, two of the plaintiffs that brought marriage equality to Oklahoma.

Sharon Baldwin joins Mary Bishop (right) for a  2013 National Coming Out Day presentation to
students at East Central University in Ada, OK, the latter's alma mater and former employer.
Both current/former editors at the Tulsa World, they've received numerous awards for their perseverance during the ten-year legal battle, including the inaugural Woody Guthrie Center Oklahoma Changing World Prize 2015, the 2015 Newsmakers Award from the Tulsa Chapter of the Association for Women in Communications, the YWCA of Tulsa's 2015 Woman of the Year (Mary nominated Sharon!), Oklahoma Magazine's 2014 Oklahomans of the Year, the Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance's 2014 Outstanding Human Rights Achievement, the ACLU Oklahoma Chapter's 2013 Angie Debo Civil Libertarians of the Year, and the 2010 Oklahomans For Equality Community Hero Award.

In addition, they were grand marshals for Pride Parades in Tulsa 2013 and Oklahoma City 2014, and in April 2016, they'll be the inaugural recipients of the University of Oklahoma Women and Gender Studies Program's Courage Award.

Mary and Sharon come from long lines of Oklahomans, as do I (my mom went to high school in Tulsa with Sharon's sister, and kindly connected us for this interview). It's an honor to share this historic story from my home state, and to learn from their persistence, strength, and undeniable badassery.

"Our colleagues at the Tulsa World did stellar work for our 'wedding photos.'"

Kate: I have to ask the most obvious question - how did you two meet?

Sharon: At work! It's true. A shared passion for grammar ignited our passion for one another. I was already working at the Tulsa World when Mary was hired in July 1995, and we got to know each other. By November 1996, I was moving in with her, and we had a commitment ceremony (not a legal marriage) in Florida in 2000. We filed our lawsuit in 2004, got our rulings and our marriage license a decade later, and as of this writing, we've been together for 19 years of bliss, but we've been legally married only since Oct. 6, 2014.

Kate: What paths and passions led to your journalism careers?

Sharon: I have always been a news junkie. Even as a child, my morning started with breakfast and the newspaper at the kitchen table. There's something about being able to be a voice of clarity amid confusion and uncertainty that's satisfying to me. Journalists can alleviate fear, incite action, educate the masses and induce tears. What a powerful thing!

Mary: When I started to college, I thought I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. I had excelled at math and science - and, well, at everything - in high school, and my teachers always told me I could do and be whatever I wanted. I was shooting for the stars! But that first year of college math and physics ate my lunch! I had come out of high school with a 4.0 GPA, and here I was making C's and feeling lucky to get them! I knew I had to change my major, so I started exploring different fields through freshman-level survey courses. When I took Intro to Mass Communication, I knew I'd found my field! I had always loved words. Sentence structure and punctuation came naturally to me, and I loved English classes. Writing and editing were my strong suits, and here was a way I could use my talents to make a difference in the world! Once I had a few more journalism classes under my belt, I was hooked!

Sharon and Mary Bishop-Baldwin were presented the inaugural Oklahoma Changing World Prize by the Woody Guthrie Center in October 2015.

Kate: A ten-year lawsuit has to be grueling, especially when you're also working in demanding careers. Was it difficult to balance the two? How do/did they impact your relationship?

Sharon: For so many of those 10 years, the lawsuit was at best a part-time pursuit. The way it languished in the courts for so long crushed us. We understand, especially in hindsight, that the courts simply didn't see the path yet, but still. For us, it was emotionally challenging. It didn't really become physically challenging - schedule challenging - until we got our initial ruling from Judge Terence Kern of the Tulsa-based federal court in January 2014. Life hasn't been the same since. On many of those days since then, the lawsuit and its fallout have felt like the full-time job with everything else just fitting in where we could. And yes, it was immensely difficult to balance the two, thanks in no small part to our second-shift work schedule. We would come home from work at midnight, eat dinner and unwind, be in bed by 4 a.m., and sometimes the phone would ring at 8 a.m. with a development in the case that we would need to be awake, showered and camera-ready to respond to within minutes sometimes or maybe an hour or two. And then we had to be at work again at 4 p.m. most of those days.

Our relationship, however, was the one thing that never wavered. Instead of pushing us apart, those trials and challenges have always seemed to turn us toward each other. We're each other's refuge and quiet place away from the roar.

Lawyers and plaintiffs in the Oklahoma marriage-equality lawsuit pose for a photo on the steps of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in April 2014 following oral arguments in the case.
Top row, left to right: Lawyers James Warner III, Don Holladay and Joseph Thai.
Bottom row, left to right: Plaintiffs Sue Barton, Gay Phillips, Sharon Baldwin and Mary Bishop.

Kate: Pursuing the lawsuit was obviously a huge decision. What ultimately made you decide to go forward?

Sharon: There are kind of two answers. On the one hand, going forward was an easy decision because it was simply the right thing to do. We are not second-class citizens, and that kind of wrong cannot go unchallenged. The harder decision was why WE were the ones to go forward. As journalists, we have spent our careers presenting the news, not making it. We tried so many different ways to see other people leading this charge, but they had valid reasons not to - one was a state employee who would likely lose her job, for example. We kept asking, "Who?" And we kept replying, "Us." We were so fortunate to have the support of our employer. Although our activism put the newspaper in a bit of an awkward position, our bosses understood why we felt we had to act, and they made it clear that we were acting as individuals. Knowing that we wouldn't be fired really made it obvious that we had to do this.

Kate: Were there times that you seriously considered giving up?

Sharon: No. That's just not who we are. If things had been worse for us - if we had experienced a lot of outward, open hostility or ever felt like we were in danger, maybe we would have reconsidered. But I doubt it.

Mary: Never. Neither when the national LGBT groups met with us and encouraged us to drop our case nor when the courts dragged on and on did we even consider quitting. Dropping the lawsuit after we received some initial unfavorable rulings on standing or when the calendar pages kept turning without any action would have been the same as saying to the people of Oklahoma: "You were right when you voted for State Question 711. We aren't equal to straight people, and we don't deserve equal rights. What were we thinking? Please forgive us, and we'll just go back into our closets and stay second-class citizens. Nevermind." No. We're too bull-headed to have backed down when we knew we were in the right.

"Sharon (left) and Mary Bishop-Baldwin flank Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals Judge Jane Wiseman, who married us on Oct. 6, 2014, outside the Tulsa County Courthouse, less than seven hours after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to hear our case led the stay to be lifted on same-sex marriages in Oklahoma."

Kate: I love Arkansas, where I currently live, but being a bisexual feminist in a red state is difficult. "Move somewhere else" is a frequent suggestion and one I can only assume you've heard as well -- how do you respond to that? What makes you stay in Oklahoma when it can seem like such a hostile place to live?

Sharon: Oklahoma belongs to us as much as it does to any of our detractors, and maybe even more so. Why should WE leave? Maybe THEY need to leave. As corny as our state song - "Oklahoma!" - might be, its sentiment resonates with me: "We know we belong to the land / And the land we belong to is grand…" For all of its problems, I prefer to look at Oklahoma through the lens of its promise. I don't want to leave. I want to stay here and fix what's wrong.

Mary: Oklahoma is our home. I'm a sixth-generation Oklahoman, and Sharon is at least a fourth-generation Oklahoman. Every Memorial Day weekend, Sharon and I drive all over eastern Oklahoma - from as far north as Barnsdall in Osage County to as far south as Wapanucka in Johnston County - to decorate family graves. We won't be run off. We will stay here and make Oklahoma better.

Oklahoma marriage-equality lawsuit co-plaintiffs Mary and Sharon Bishop-Baldwin, Gay Phillips and Sue Barton are shown outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the day the justices heard arguments in the historic Obergefell v. Hodges case in April 2015.

Kate: What are the best ways that people have supported you, whether during the lawsuit or in pursuit of any goal?

Sharon : My gosh. Just by loving us. There was a time in the early days of the lawsuit where we didn't feel supported, in fact. The national LGBT rights groups were upset with us for having challenged the federal Defense of Marriage Act. They said we would lose and would set the cause back 20 years. For starters, we never believed for one second that we would lose. And secondly, their plan wrote Oklahoma off as a lost cause. They didn't care about us. They just wanted our donations. The local LGBT rights group was led at the time by people who followed the national groups' playbook unquestioningly. So we weren't very well-known, even locally, and certainly not across the state, and the people who did know about us thought we were doing the wrong thing.

But when Toby Jenkins took over the helm of Oklahomans for Equality, he met with us and apologized profusely for that previous lack of support. He said his organization would never again turn its back on us as long as he had anything to do with it, and he lived up to his word. He made us the flag-bearers of a cause and recruited an army to march with us, and it's just been one big love fest ever since. We can't imagine that there can ever be a greater honor than to have represented Oklahoma's LGBTQ community in this fight and no greater thrill than to have felt such love and support from thousands of people. We knew we were never alone.

Mary: Our co-plaintiffs, Sue Barton and Gay Phillips, were with us every step of the way and became like sisters to us. The four of us always had each other's backs throughout out lawsuit. Our first lawyer, Kay Bridger-Riley, took a big chance with us, and we'll forever be grateful to her for taking on our case. The lawyer who took our case when we were down and almost out in 2009, Don Holladay, is our savior. He took the case pro bono, asking only for expenses (which he kept amazingly low), and he brought his associate, James Warner III, on to assist him. Those two brilliant attorneys won our case for us in U.S. District Court, and in doing so, they created a roadmap for others to follow in other states. Don and James added University of Oklahoma law professor Joseph Thai to the counsel team in taking the case to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where they won again. These people won the case for us and became like family, and we are forever in their debt.

Beyond that, we've had so much support from LGBT Oklahomans and straight allies. Individuals have donated to our legal fund, first through Community of Hope United Church of Christ in Tulsa and later through Oklahomans for Equality. Those donations paid our attorneys' costs and paid our way to Denver for the 10th Circuit hearing and to Washington for a gathering of marriage-quality plaintiffs from all over the country at the time of the U.S. Supreme Court's hearing in the Obergefell case last summer. Our community showed us so much love, gratitude and support. We know we never could have done this without them.

We also know that we didn't start this movement toward equality. We have been standing on the shoulders of so many brave people who opened their own closet doors at times when it wasn't so safe to do so. Those people took great risks - and many lost not only their legal cases but also their jobs, their livelihoods and even their lives for doing so. Without the foundation they built, we could not have done what we did, and we would not be where we are now.

Kate: Outside of work and fighting for civil rights, do you have any creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)?

Sharon : I guess wildlife rehabilitating is our escape from it all. We have been rehabbers for about five years, working primarily with orphaned and injured raccoons to prepare them to live in the wild. The raccoons have certainly provided levity within the lawsuit - friends have joked about us taking the raccoons to court (we didn't) - but really they have been a way to get away from it all at times. A real unforeseen silver lining is that because of our large audience on Facebook, we're now able to teach so many more people via our posts about how to co-exist with wildlife. Fear is based in ignorance, and wild animals are often killed out of fear. The more we can erase ignorance, the better things are for the animals.

"The clothes came from the closet. The flowers were a rush job. The venue was
 the courthouse steps. But our wedding on  Oct. 6, 2014, was everything we could have dreamed of."
Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Sharon : Listen to your own voice. Call it what you want - instinct, your gut, God, whatever. But the answers are there. When the whole world is saying no, but that voice is saying yes, listen to that voice.

Mary: Pick your battles, and then, once you've done that, give it all you've got. Be strong in your righteous indignation. Don't sink to name-calling and belittling others; remain above all that. Respect yourself, and be someone others will respect, as well.


You can learn more about Sharon and Mary in their bios below, and on the Oklahoma Marriage Equality Lawsuit Page, their personal Facebook pages (Sharon, Mary), or @MaryBBtworld on Twitter.

About Sharon and Mary:

Sharon Bishop-Baldwin – I was born and raised in Tulsa, Okla., and have lived outside of the Tulsa metro area for only three years – while I attended the University of Oklahoma, from which I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in May 1992. My 87-year-old father still lives in Tulsa with his wife, Beverly. My mother, Helen, died in 1995. My only sibling, my older sister, Jan, also lives in Tulsa. I started working at the Tulsa World in August 1993, and that’s where I met Mary.

For the next 20 years, I was a copy editor and then the slot editor on the news copy desk for local and state news. I left my job at the World in May 2014 to write a book about our 10-year marriage-equality lawsuit. The book – “Becoming Brave: How We Won Marriage Equality in Oklahoma and Found Ourselves in the Process” – should be published in the first quarter of this year. I am the secretary of the board of directors of Oklahomans for Equality, a Tulsa-based statewide LGBTQ-rights organization that operates the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center in Tulsa, and Mary and I are the co-chairs of the 2016 Equality Gala, slated for April 30.

Away from work and OkEq, Mary and I enjoy doting on our five furry children, our cats Deon (18), Darrell Jr. (13), Delilah (12), Blaze (3) and Beau (9 months). We are also wildlife rehabilitators, meaning we raise orphaned and injured squirrels and raccoons (primarily raccoons) for release back to the wild.

Mary Bishop-Baldwin – I was born in Ada, Okla.,  and lived there until I was in the sixth grade, when my family moved south of town, between Ada and Fittstown. I attended school at McLish Grade School and McLish High School from third grade on. My graduating class had 21 students. I earned my bachelor’s degree in mass communication from East Central University in Ada in 1983, having worked my way through college as a part-time secretary at a community mental health clinic.

After graduation, I didn’t find a job in my field because I had no experience, so I took a job as a full-time secretary at a mental health clinic in Oklahoma City. At least I had experience in that field! But the pay was barely subsistence level, and I knew I had to make a change, so I went back to school and got my master’s degree in mass communication/journalism from Arkansas State University in 1985. I was the reporter at the twice-weekly newspaper in Bristow, Okla., for most of the next year, and then I was a copy editor at the Daily Oklahoman for a short time before joining the faculty at my alma mater, ECU, in 1986. I taught journalism and mass comm there for nine years and did my doctoral coursework at Oklahoma State University. While I was still untenured because I hadn’t completed my doctorate, I challenged the East Central administration on a student-press freedom and academic freedom issue, and I was “not invited back.” I needed that kick in the pants to get me moving again, onward and upward.

I left academia and went back into the field of journalism, joining the staff of the Tulsa World in the summer of 1995. I began my Tulsa World career on the copy desk. During my first week there, everyone else on the desk kept telling me I would like Sharon, who was on vacation at the time. When she returned, indeed we did hit it off, and that friendship and mutual admiration grew into the deepest of love and respect. I moved from the copy desk to the city desk in 1997 and have been there since. – Oh, by the way, while my rift with the ECU administration over student press issues led to my dismissal, it also led to the removal of the student newspaper from the domain of the university’s public information office. It has been an independent voice free of administrative control ever since.


Want to be inspired by more Badass Ladies? Check out some previous profiles, and follow on Twitter or Tumblr!

Special thanks to Sarah Enni for assistance in preparing these questions!


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