When Hunter Godsey walked into a Macon bakery to ask for a cake to be made for his wedding to a man, he was a little nervous.
He, of course, is well familiar with the case of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding, citing religious reasons. It ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Godsey wondered if he would get similar resistance.
“I just asked up front, ‘Would you be willing to do a cake for a gay wedding?” he recalled. “I could tell I kind of caught her off guard and she had never been asked that, and she just said ‘Yeah, that’s OK.’”
Nearly three years ago the Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal throughout the country, and since then, attitudes have gradually shifted.
Godsey married Jon Simpson May 5 at First Baptist Church of Christ, founded in 1826 and one of the oldest churches in Macon. In August, 73 percent of church members voted to allow gay weddings in the church, where Godsey is a deacon. He was elected to that position three years ago, just as he was beginning to come out as gay, and he made sure members knew before they voted.
The couple had over 500 people at their wedding. Godsey and Simpson, who have lived together for a year a half, said they encounter no direct anti-gay sentiment in the community.
“You can turn on the television and there appears to be a national debate about it,” Simpson said, “but among our church and our friends and family, there is very much overwhelming support. It was certainly an affirmation that we did not expect.”
A 2015 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 47 percent of Georgians opposed gay marriage, 45 percent favored it and 8 percent were undecided. The same poll in 2017 found that 39 percent were opposed, 52 percent supported it and 10 percent were undecided.
Elizabeth Whidby, clerk of Bibb County Probate Court, said the court does not keep track of the number of same-sex marriage licenses that are issued, but she guessed it to be at least one a month. Houston County Probate Judge Janice Spires said that’s about the same amount issued there, if not less.
‘We have made a ton of progress’
As soon as the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage came down on June 26, 2015, Lauren and Paige Hightower went to the Bibb County courthouse and became the first same-sex couple to marry in Bibb. They had already married 11 years earlier in Canada, but then got a letter saying their marriage was invalidated due to Georgia’s law forbidding gay marriage.
They continue to celebrate the anniversary of both ceremonies.
“Attitudes have definitely gotten better in the past three years because there is such an awareness and such a dialogue,” Lauren Hightower said.
Like Godsey and Simpson, she said their families have always been accepting of their relationship. Aside from some anti-gay Facebook comments on a Telegraph story about their wedding in 2015, Hightower said they haven’t had any negative reactions from the public.
“People who have an issue with the LGBTQ community have gone in the closet,” Hightower said. “It’s not fashionable anymore to be very openly homophobic.”
Before their Georgia marriage, she would introduce Paige as her partner, even though she thought of her as her wife. She also never liked the “partner” designation because it often prompted confusion more than anything. People didn’t know whether she was referring to her as a business partner, and the term “life partner” seemed odd.
Now she is happy she can just introduce Paige as her wife and reactions are accepting.
“We have made a ton of progress,” she said. “It’s a different world, it really is.”
Hightower, 50, came out as gay when she was 18. She can hardly describe the change in attitudes since that time. She was physically assaulted a couple of times in the 1980s because she was gay, she said.
“I never thought in my lifetime we would make this much progress,” she said. “There have been some real watershed moments.”
However, she does think there is still progress to be made, particularly in protecting gays from discrimination in housing, employment, adoption and child custody.
“There are certainly a lot of stories out there of people being fired because they are gay, losing custody because they are gay,” she said.
‘We hate that we lost people’
Godsey, whose father Kirby Godsey is chancellor of Mercer University and its former president, said his church’s vote to allow gay weddings was not because of him. He said he and Simpson had not even decided to get married at that time, and he said their wedding was not the first same-sex wedding in the church.
But after the vote, it did prompt the couple to talk about getting married.
“Honestly before, we weren’t even considering marriage,” Simpson said. “After the church voted, that’s when it became more of a reality to us that we could get married with the blessing of our church community, and I think that really opened that possibility for us.”
After the vote, there were some families that left the church, Godsey said, but some new families have arrived since then and he didn’t think the size of the congregation had changed much. Still, he was bothered that people left because of it.
“We hate that we lost people, people that we loved,” Godsey said. “But we also understand that they need to do what is best for them.”
They were interviewed a few days before their wedding. Afterward, Simpson sent an email about how encouraged they were by the turnout.
“For us, this was an inspiring source of hope and support,” he said. “At one point in the ceremony the pastor asked us to turn and look at the sea of faces there in support of our union— the sight was unbelievable. The sanctuary was filled with love and joy.”
Although it does not mention gay marriage, the church’s website prominently features a lengthy statement from pastor Scott Dickison on what it means to be welcome at a church, and the conversations church members have had about that.
“Whoever you are, wherever you have come from, however you have found yourself here, and wherever the Spirit may lead you once we depart, know that you are welcome in this place, fully and completely, without reservation,” it reads. “If you have ever felt unwelcome or excluded from church for any reason, I want you to know in particular you are welcome here.”