Valley couple to legally wed after 57 years of commitment
By Laura Latzko - Nov. 6, 2014
For nearly six decades, Nelda Majors and Karen Bailey have been committed to each other, their family and, most recently, marriage equality for everyone.
As the lead plaintiffs on a federal lawsuit challenging Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage (filed March 13, 2014), Majors and Bailey have gone from the closet to the spotlight in no time at all.
“We’ve been together longer than we were been apart,” Majors said, to which Bailey added, “We’ve always been the very best of friends.”
But for a full appreciation of what led these women to the Maricopa County Clerk of the Superior Court’s office on the morning of Oct. 17, 2014, you must go back to Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, in 1957 where their story begins.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
Upon meeting in college, the women were fast friends. And, in 1958, when Majors was 19 and Bailey was 18, the two became a couple.
“When we made our commitment to each other, we knew it was a lifetime commitment,” Bailey said. “We felt it because we cared that much. We were very young when we made that commitment, and yet we did. We just have a connection morally that has always sustained us.”
Although the two women came out to select LGBT friends over the years, they recall scenarios when it was not safe to be openly gay.
“Back when we were young, you didn’t talk about it and led two separate lives,” Bailey said. “At the time, we accepted it; we didn’t think that much about it.”
But keeping their relationship to themselves didn’t stop them from becoming close to each other’s families.
“There were some things that were said that led us to believe they knew, or that they suspected, but we never confirmed those suspicions,” Majors said. “Years ago, it wasn’t an issue that was discussed like it’s discussed now.”
In fact, there was a time Bailey lived with Majors and her parents.
“They knew we lived together and we shared the same bedroom. They knew when one went on vacation, the other one went on vacation,” Majors said. “We never told them we were gay, but we never told them we’re not gay.”
Bailey and Majors worked together at a physical therapy business Majors started in Texas. After 13 years of Majors overseeing patient care and hospital contracts and Bailey handling the company’s business and billing responsibilities, the two retired and moved to Arizona (just in time for their 50th anniversary).
RAISING A FAMILY
In 1996, Bailey’s great niece, Sharla Curtis, 4, came to live with the couple. And six years later Bailey’s second great niece, Marissa Diamond, 3, also joined the family. Their daughters are now 22 and 16 years old, respectively.
In raising their daughters, Bailey said they tried to impart values that are important to them, including the meaning of love and the importance of accepting others and standing up against bullying.
And, in 2008, that meant coming out to their adopted daughters.
“My friends had asked me before, but I never really gave it too much thought,” Curtis said. “They were Karen and Nelda. They were my moms. They took care of me. Whether or not they were together didn’t really affect that. They were my parents. When they came out to me, it felt nice because they had been holding it in. It was just nice to know that we could be open with each other.”
Curtis added that, since they shared their relationship with her, she feels closer to the two women who raised her.
Since coming out, Majors and Bailey shared their surprise in how much support they have received from LGBT and straight people in their lives, including the parents of their daughters’ friends.
However, Bailey and Majors said that with age — and children — come worries and uncertainties about medical, inheritance and custody issues, most of which are addressed in the rights and protections marriage would provide. Adding that Bailey is the only one with legal custody of Diamond.
“As we got older, it was more meaningful to us to solve these problems,” Majors said. “We didn’t complain about it because we accepted that it would never happen.”
But these concerns, along with their hope to help others, prompted the couple to become the lead plaintiffs in the Majors vs. Jeanes lawsuit (formerly Majors vs. Horne). This federal court challenge to Arizona’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, filed March 13, 2014, in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, by Lambda Legal on behalf of seven same-sex couples and two surviving spouses.
“Today being able to be out and for people to have showed us how much they care, that has been important to us,” Bailey said of the couple’s involvement in the case.
Both Curtis and Diamond took part in the legal case for marriage equality, writing statements about why their mothers deserved the right to be married. And Curtis added that she is ready to see her mothers officially recognized as wives after a lifetime together.
A MILESTONE MOMENT
When Arizona’s Attorney General Tom Horne publically stated that he was “issuing a letter today to the 15 county clerks of court with the directive that, based on today’s decision by the federal district court, they can issue licenses for same-sex marriages immediately,” Bailey and Majors were ready.
Because they’ve waited the longest, it was fitting that they be first in line to receive a marriage license issued by the state of Arizona.
But Kevin Patterson and David Larance-Patterson, also plaintiffs in the case, were not far behind. And, within minutes of both couples receiving these life-changing documents, Bailey and Majors served as witnesses in the Larance-Patterson wedding — the first legally recognized same-sex wedding in Arizona — right in front of the Maricopa County Clerk of the Superior Court’s office Oct. 17.
However, Bailey and Majors decided to wait on to exchange their vows until later this month where they said they’re excited to legalize their bond and share their love in a ceremony with all their friends and family.
“We do want a ceremony, but we also want it to be a celebration,” Bailey said.
“It is not about just Karen and I. It is going to change the lives of so many people for the better, so we want to celebrate that.”
Curtis and Diamond have a lot to celebrate as well.
“I think it is the most amazing thing that could have ever happened. Nobody deserves it more than they do, and it’s just been way too long,” Curtis said. “Being together 57 years and finally being able to take that step, it says how important it really is to make sure what you are doing is important to you and what goes into a marriage … You have these two wonderful people who have been together for 57 years. They aren’t going to change their minds. They’re in it for the long haul.”
Majors admitted that neither she nor Bailey ever envisioned a day that they would have been able marry and be afforded the protections that come along with that privilege.
“Now that we are going to have those rights, it means a lot to us,” Majors said. “That was our main issue. We wanted to have equal protection until the law.”
Bailey said that although marriage will guarantee them more protections and rights as a couple, it has no bearing on their devotion to each other. Majors agreed.
“We are so committed to each other now, I don’t see how a ceremony can change that commitment,” Majors said. “I love Karen with all of my heart. I don’t know how I could love her any more.” e