By Blair Jackson
“Here’s where the chairs will be,” he says, gesturing to a grassy area between the side of the house and the duck pond.
He describes the decorations. Wine bottles will hang from the chairs, lining the aisle with wildflowers. There are plans for an arbor, under which he will be married, that will be made from two antique doors and a wooden ladder.
He and the wedding planner have decided to weave honeysuckle through the rungs of the ladder, so it will hang over the couple’s heads during the ceremony. The reception will be held in the backyard, between the back porch and the pine trees, where guests will dance barefoot beneath a tent. Italian lanterns will hang from the trees.
He is considering dressing the groomsmen and women in white linen — a deviation from the traditional wedding etiquette that demands only the bride dress in white.
Because Renegar’s marriage won’t involve a bride, new traditions are in order.
The two grooms haven’t decided what type of suits they will wear, or how they will differentiate one suit from the other, but in addition to the ivory palette, Renegar is considering blue — to match the color of his fiancé’s eyes.
Renegar met Thomas Staed in December 2009.
“For the record,” says Staed, “he approached me.”
Renegar says he noticed Staed on that first night when he saw him laugh. “He was laughing like no one cared, just cracking up.”
“Cody was one of the first people who caught my eye. He was wearing a red v-neck sweater,” Staed remembers.
Staed was new in town, and was surrounded by a group of people. Renegar introduced himself and after a few minutes of conversation, he left Thomas and sat down at the bar. Sitting five seats away, Renegar sent Staed a Facebook message.
“Hey, it was nice to meet you … ” began the message. Now, two years later, the couple still continues the thread of that first message when they have something special to tell one another, such as “Happy Anniversary!”
The couple had their first date at Wasabi on Dickson Street, where the couple bonded over the movie “Steel Magnolias” — an allusion that will make an appearance in their wedding as the bleeding armadillo groom’s cake.
“We went on our second date, and he never really left,” says Renegar. “We were talking about all the things we were looking for in love. He needed excitement, and I needed stability.”
Renegar is a hair stylist who travels to L.A. and D.C. to work on high-profile clients, while Staed is a bank analyst.
“He’s all math, and I’m all creative,” says Renegar. “We compliment each other very well.”
The couple purchased a home together last January, which they refer to as the T.L.C. Farm. T.L.C. stands for the three men of the house, Cody, Thomas and Levi, who is Cody’s 15-year-old son.
On the side of the house, a basketball goal is mounted against green siding. Two ATVs are parked in the backyard, and a photo of the family sits on a table in the living room. It is a photo from the national No H8 Campaign, where each is mimicking one of the “See, Hear and Speak No Evil” actions.
Renegar says his son has been very supportive and positive of his two fathers. “He loves it and thinks it’s a great thing,” says Renegar, who describes their home life as very normal — full of chores and camping and fishing and laughter.
Over the past year, Renegar and Staed began improvements on their new home. One day, Staed was painting over the beige siding on their house, while Renegar was holding the ladder.
Renegar offered to take over, and instead of completing the job, he painted his proposal. “Will u marry me?” in green paint.
Staed agreed, and the two began planning for their wedding, which is scheduled for June 16.
In November, when Renegar called to inquire about submitting his wedding announcement to the Northwest Arkansas Times, he was told that it was the company’s policy to print legally recognized marriages in Arkansas, which would not include his marriage.
Renegar said he was not aware of the paper’s policy at the time. “I was just calling to ask where I could find the application and pricing. I did not expect a controversy.”
After being denied the opportunity to print his wedding announcement, Renegar and Staed submitted their wedding announcement to Yahoo.com and contacted their friend and activist Laura Phillips. After making the decision to go public with their story, the couple admitted to feeling “a little vulnerable at first.”
Their announcement was published online on Jan. 22, and by the following morning, their story had been shared with a variety of social media outlets, calling attention to the newspaper policy. Laura and her husband, Jay, asked local media outlets to publish same-sex announcements.
In a television interview with KNWA, Renegar expressed his opinion on being denied the opportunity to have his wedding announced in the local newspaper. “You want to be represented, as a human being, as a person of love. It’s not that complicated to put a picture of two people in love,” he said.
That initial feeling of vulnerability was lost in a flood of support from the local and national gay community and activists. The couple received hundreds of friend requests on Facebook, so many that they had to create a fan page to manage the traffic. Dozens of articles have been posted on the controversy and the couple has received publicity and support from GLAAD and the HRC.
“It felt amazing to have that much support behind us,” said Renegar.
On the local front, Jay and Laura Phillips also created a petition on the website change.org. In the “About this Petition” section, Phillips writes, “… Laura and I have been working with Cody and many others to help change this discriminatory policy by the newspaper and its publisher, Rusty Turner.”
Phillips continues, writing, “After discussing the matter with Mr. Turner, I am convinced this policy will only be changed when the people let him know how much it matters to them.”
Turner, publisher for NWA Media’s local daily newspapers that includes the NWA Times, said the online petition will not influence the policy, as it is not a reliable representation of the Northwest Arkansas community.
“An online position is in no way a scientific measurement of customers, readers or the community,” Turner said. The publisher also expressed appreciation for the feedback the newspaper has received, both in support and disappointment of the policy, but said that the core issue is the state’s stance on same-sex marriage.
“Energy being expended in this situation might be better directed to the state Legislature and the government and those who set the policies on the state,” Turner suggests.
The Northwest Arkansas Times expressed its position in a written response: “As a mass public forum for news, politics, sports and events, we set guidelines on a variety of reader submitted information. Often we use legal standards for what we’ll accept. In this way, we attempt to keep our own opinions out of the objective process of reporting and newsgathering.”
Turner said these guidelines have been used in situations other than same-sex marriage. Using the state’s policies as a guideline for publication, the NWA Times did not publish information on charity raffles until the lottery bill applied to state laws in 2007. Now that such raffles are legal, they are included in announcements.
Though the newspaper’s wedding announcement policy mirrors the state’s stance on same-sex marriage, Turner said part of the newspaper’s job is to facilitate the discussion surrounding same-sex rights. Six years ago, working as the editor of The Morning News edition, Turner encountered a similar outcry from the community when The Morning News edition printed profiles on same-sex couples with children as part of a report on adoption laws in the state. The backlash, however, was from the opposite direction: those opposed to same-sex partnerships.
The NWA Times’ response to the current controversy also mentions the paper’s discussion of same-sex rights, reading, “If one were to look through our archives, he or she would find numerous articles that share the stories of same-sex couples and editorials defending the rights of gay Arkansans to legally adopt children in this state. There is more to our newspaper than the wedding announcements.”
“In print, we offer the opportunity for readers to voice their opinions through the letters to the editor and guest columns,” said Turner.
Since the controversy developed, readers have been actively commenting on the www.nwaonline.com website and interacting through Facebook to voice a variety of opinions, both in support and in rejection of the newspaper’s current policy.
The paper identifies the opportunity for change as follows: “Should the state of Arkansas change its laws regarding civil unions or same-sex marriages, we would adjust our practices accordingly. We encourage those with opinions in this matter to contact their legislators and to be active in shaping the laws that govern our state and country.”
Jason Rogers, a member of NWA Center for Equality, believes change should begin in the opposite direction. “Start with a small thing like a wedding announcement and then move up to the Legislature,” he said. “No one is asking Arkansas to change the laws. They just want to print their announcement. Is that so much to ask? It’s a simple ad in the newspaper to announce to their friends, family and community that they are in love and they want to celebrate it.”
“The newspaper should be at the heart of freedom of expression and belief, and to say ‘No, we’re not going to show two women or two men who are in love because it’s not our policy’ — that’s a blow to someone’s humanity.”
Rogers questions the measures taken to uphold its current policy among heterosexual couples, asking “Does the newspaper personally verify all heterosexual marriages that it publishes?”
The answer is no.
No proof of marriage is needed in order to announce a heterosexual wedding in the NWA Times, but Turner stated that if the paper felt it was receiving false information, it would investigate further.
The Southwest Times Record, a daily newspaper based in Fort Smith, said they also do not ask for verifications for legality of wedding announcements. “We don’t ask anyone to show us a marriage license. If you say you are getting married, then you are,” said editor Judith Hansen. “Our policy is that we don’t have a separate policy for same-sex (announcements).”
Hansen said that the paper does not publish announcements for commitment ceremonies, but would be willing to publish marriages conducted out-of-state. She said the paper has no plans to change the policy, but said “If we felt as though we were receiving information that was not given in good faith, we would have to explore it.”
Because Renegar and Staed will be married in Arkansas, their union will not be recognized by any state as legal, which would make them ineligible for an announcement in the Southwest Times Record. However, the couple said, “We’ve already had our announcement, we just want to do whatever we can to make sure everyone else can get theirs.”
Renegar explained the importance of a wedding announcement: “The validation that comes with the public acknowledgement means that there is hope. That people are actually evolving, learning and growing. And treating us as equals and not second-class citizens.”
Though unable to secure a newspaper announcement, Renegar said the controversy has created a vibrant discussion surrounding same-sex rights in Arkansas and has brought new attention to an issue that is rarely at the forefront of Arkansas politics or current events.
“That’s the only way you bring about change, is to get people talking about it. (Gay marriage) is not even discussed in Arkansas.”
“Change begins with each and every one of us truly communicating, keeping our fears at bay and truly listening to people.” For those who cite tradition as a reason to oppose same-sex equality, Renegar posed this question:
“What would you believe, if you had never been told what to believe?”