“Where Are They Now?” is a regular series where we catch up with past Lambda Legal plaintiffs. This month, we’re highlighting Christopher Inniss and Shelton Stroman.
In 2014 after being denied a marriage license, Christopher Inniss and Shelton Stroman teamed up with Lambda Legal to fight against Georgia’s discriminatory marriage ban. Joining two other same-sex couples and a surviving spouse, Lambda Legal filed a federal lawsuit, Inniss v. Aderhold, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on their behalf. For the couple, who had been together 13 years at the time, being the named plaintiff in the suit, was a compelling way to show their son, Jonathan, the importance of standing up for yourself in the face of bias.
Thankfully, after the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote in favor of marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, Georgia could no longer treat same-sex couples differently than straight couples. Marriage equality finally became the law of the land, and Chris and Shelton were married.
In their own words, the loving couple opens up about what inspired them to sue, the power of fighting back, and their fears of what could happen if same-sex couples lose the right to marry.
Before the lawsuit, we were the only gay couple in our neighborhood. At the time, our son Jonathan, who was around eight or nine, was playing with his friend next door whose parents were married. His friend asked, “Are your dads married?” Jonathan didn’t know but said, “They told me they can’t get married.” When he came home, he asked, “Why can’t I tell the neighbors you are married?” Sadly, we had to explain to our innocent child that getting married was against the law in Georgia. He didn’t like that answer and started quoting Dr. Seuss’ “a person’s a person” and how much he wanted us to be married. At that moment, we knew we had to do something. Thankfully, we found Lambda Legal to pursue a lawsuit and became the lead couple in the case.
Initially, we were afraid. We were getting death threats—actual letters mailed to our home. We kept every last one—good and bad—in a binder to remind ourselves and our son that we have to be willing to stand up if we want to change things. Lambda helped us be that change by getting us ready to talk to reporters, which we had never done before—we never try to be in the limelight, but it became something we needed to do, and it got easier as it became part of our everyday. Lambda also reminded us that we’re not second-class citizens and the right to marry was inherently ours. Most importantly, they gave us a sense that we could win—and in 2015, we did just that!
It’s funny because we were on vacation on a cruise for our anniversary when we got the call from Lambda. The staff announced the news to everyone over a loudspeaker, and the boat instantly turned into a huge party! When we got home, we debated whether to have a big wedding or save money and go to the justice of the peace. We finally decided on the latter, the very place that denied our marriage license the first time. Ironically, the same lady who said “no” was there, but she had to approve it this time. Later that day, we were married! Twenty-one years of being together and seven years since we said, “I do,” we’re still going strong and hope that our son, who’s now 17, will look at what we did and know that if you really want something, you have to fight for it.
Being married protects our family. If one of us were hospitalized, marriage allows us to be in the room and make important decisions on the other’s behalf. While our extended families love us and would never do anything to hurt us, there are so many LGBTQ couples who don’t have that same experience. We’ve heard so many horror stories of people being unable to see their partner’s last breath because they weren’t married, and the partner’s family pushed them out. But it’s also the little things. We take pride in filing our taxes together each year.
Now, here we are in 2022, fearful of what could happen if marriage equality is overturned. After the Dobbs decision, Justice Thomas’ declaration that the courts should revisit past rulings, including Obergefell, raises serious concerns. LGBTQ married couples like us will have to worry—once again—about returning to a time when we lacked equal rights to married heterosexual couples under the law. When my husband and I should be planning our retirement like other married couples, we still have to fight for our equality, which is frustrating. It is scary to think we could lose our marriage, retirement, and survivor benefits we have earned.
But if that does happen, we’re clear: We will fight just as hard as we did the first time.
The U.S. Senate will soon consider the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that would codify marriage equality into law and require nationwide recognition of all valid marriages, without discrimination based on sex or race. ACT NOW to make sure that the Senate reaffirms that marriage equality is the law of our land. Call both of your Senators today via the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or (202) 224-3091 (TTY).