A new documentary that launches Tuesday focuses on the central role Kentucky played in the historic civil-rights battle that led to legalized same-sex marriage in the United States.
The filming of Love v. Kentucky began almost by accident in 2014. Alex Schuman, then a reporter for WHAS-TV in Louisville, accompanied Timothy Love and Larry Ysunza as they applied for a marriage license. The men were denied, triggering the second of two lawsuits in Kentucky that would go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the same-sex marriage bans that Kentucky and dozens of other states had enacted.
Finishing his taping of that day’s news story, Schuman turned to one of the couple’s lawyers, Laura Landenwich.
“I said, ‘I assume someone is capturing all this, like, for history, because it’s probably going to change America,’” said Schuman, now a Washington correspondent. “And she said, ‘No, no one’s doing anything.’ The idea that no one else was recording this story shocked me. So I did it.”
Schuman and his production partner, Evan Swanson, spent the next two years traveling the country, interviewing most of the major players as the marriage lawsuits proceeded and finally attending joyous weddings. They shot 90 hours of footage for the 1-hour, 27-minute film.
Change came with breath-taking speed. In barely a year’s time, Love and Ysunza and Kentucky’s other plaintiffs won in U.S. District Court in Louisville; lost at the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in a case also involving couples from Tennessee, Ohio and Michigan; and won again at the nation’s highest court in June 2015. That last victory was the final word.
“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court’s majority. “Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Schuman was filming at Landenwich’s law office in downtown Louisville when the Supreme Court released its decision.
“It was ecstatic,” he said. “You get to see that moment in the film. They were on the computer checking SCOTUSblog, waiting for the decision, and then suddenly there’s the word ‘marriage,’ and there’s a tense silence as they’re all reading, reading, and then they shout ‘Yes!’”
Kentucky was a fascinating place from which to watch the fight for marriage equality, Schuman said.
It’s a conservative state that passed a law against same-sex marriage in 1998 and followed up in 2004 with a constitutional amendment that had the overwhelming support of voters. Many Kentuckians, therefore, were shocked when U.S. District Judge John Heyburn declared the marriage ban to be unconstitutional because it denied gays and lesbians the same basic rights as their fellow citizens.
Jack Conway, then Kentucky’s attorney general, told reporters he could not in good conscience defend the marriage ban in the appeals courts. Conway cried as he said that he had to be able to look his young daughters in the eye and know that he did the moral thing. Left without a lawyer, then-Gov. Steve Beshear hired a private law firm to represent the state.
Opponents of same-sex marriage protested that they often were depicted as bigots when they only wanted to protect the traditional definition of marriage — one man and one woman.
“President Obama once was for traditional marriage. Was he a hatemonger?” Kent Ostrander of the Family Foundation asks in the film.
Speaking of opponents, Schuman and Swanson debated how much time in the documentary to devote to Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who briefly led a high-profile protest against same-sex marriage by refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone at her courthouse. They opted to limit Davis to a passing reference near the end.
“We decided that Kim Davis was one of the inevitable reactions you see to the case, and when we set out, what we had really wanted to focus on was the case itself. She was like that Alabama chief justice who stood up after the marriage decision to announce that he wasn’t going to enforce it,” Schuman said. “But these are simply ripple effects. She’s just not that important in the historic view, in the long run.”