She noticed the rings first.
Annie crawled in between Rob and Carl in the back of her parents’ pickup. The two families – neighbors, but family – had just finished a big meal at Red Lobster. It was a perfect evening in Casper in the summer of 2012, the late-setting sun dipping below the prairie horizon.
As Carl buckled 5-year-old Annie into her seat, she couldn’t keep her little hands and big green eyes off the diamonds set in his platinum ring.
“You guys have the same rings,” she said. “Are you married?”
Rob and Carl had spent the better part of two decades considering the right way to talk about their relationship, but the curiosity of a child was something new, something different.
Yes, Carl told Annie, he and Rob were married.
“Who’s the wife?”
You could start their story any number of ways.
You could start on the day in 1997 when Carl Oleson, then an interior decorator, accepted a dinner invitation to Rob Johnston’s Las Vegas home and “fixed” Rob’s broken washing machine by pulling a sock out of the clogged water pump.
You could start six weeks later, when Rob asked Carl to move in. Because sometimes, you just know.
Or you could jump ahead to July 2010, when Rob and Carl exchanged vows in Windsor, Ontario, beside a small group of close friends and family with Detroit’s skyline as the wedding backdrop.
“We have all kinds of stuff we celebrate,” Rob said.
“Because I’m sentimental,” Carl added. “That’s all me. And he has to remember, or he gets in trouble.”
The two sat a cushion apart on their living room couch one September evening, surrounded by the life they’d built together during their 12 years in Casper. An East African wedding necklace sat below the window. Sculptures collected from all over the world perched on every open surface. A painting Carl had made for Rob’s 50th birthday hung just inside the door – a massive canvas and frame with decoupage and charcoal, a sweeping male form beside their interlocked hands and matching wedding bands.
Carl, dressed in sweatpants and a long-sleeved Penn State shirt – his spouse’s alma mater - marveled at his new watch. Rob scooted closer, placed his hand on Carl’s knee and gave him a quick kiss.
The watch was a gift from Rob on their 17th anniversary. Well, one of their 17th anniversaries.
They call their life together a journey. The latest chapter began March 5, when, along with three other same-sex couples from across the state, Rob and Carl sued Gov. Matt Mead and the State of Wyoming -- the state where Carl was born, the state where they’d lived together since 2002 - for their right to be recognized as a married couple, and for the right of other gay people to marry the person they love.
Carl would rather have his teeth pulled than go shopping.
But still, he found himself in Casper’s Eastridge Mall that day in 2010, and Rob wanted to look at wedding rings.
The two perused the glass cases. Carl kept searching for black diamonds – he loved the way they sparkled – and mentioned to the woman behind the counter he and Rob were getting married.
She stared for a moment, then turned and walked away.
Another woman came from the cash register behind them.
“What can I do for you today?” she asked the pair.
“We need to look at wedding rings,” Carl answered.
She perked up.
“How nice!” she said. “What’s your bride’s name?”
“Robert,” Carl said.
“Is he Robert?” she asked.
This time, the approval came immediately.
“I have a perfect ring.”
The rings had been sitting inside the glass case for years. Mismatched but matching, the two men’s rings were made by different manufacturers but were both platinum with five floating diamonds. It was almost as if they’d been waiting for Rob and Carl.
At the far end of the glass case, a man watched the couple as they weighed their options: two other pairs of rings sitting beside the platinum set.
The man stood and walked toward them.
“OK, we’re going to get it now,” Carl thought.
The man looked like the type they’d been conditioned to avoid, the oil field or farmhand type of man. A man’s man.
He stopped beside Rob and Carl, paused, then pointed toward the mismatched platinum rings.
“That set,” he said.
He turned and walked away.
Overnight, Rob and Carl became Wyoming’s gay poster couple.
The call came in March when an attorney in San Francisco asked if they would take part in the lawsuit and be the face of the gay rights struggle in Wyoming: a loving, married couple fighting for recognition and respect.
The suit, named for plaintiff Cora Courage of Evanston, would be filed as Courage v. Wyoming, and if they were in, it would be for the long haul. Attorneys told them to expect nothing short of two, maybe even three, years before a ruling.
Rob and Carl had struggled their entire lives. This would be the fight to end that struggle.
Not long after, a picture of them, taken in Salt Lake City while Carl’s father was sick in the hospital, began appearing on Facebook pages advocating for marriage equality in the Equality State.
They knew the risk. Living in a right-to-work state meant that they could be fired for being gay. They knew the exposure opened the door to further discrimination in their personal lives, from hurtful online comments to the specter of violence.
“But we’re willing to do this,” Carl said. “We are invested in this as much as we possibly can be, and if it means being out and being public and talking, someone’s got to do it.”
The night after the lawsuit was filed, an email came from their attorney, James Lyman.
James wrote that he had eaten Chinese food that night. After his meal, he cracked open a fortune cookie.
“When you have no choice, mobilize the spirit of courage.”
Courage v. Wyoming. It was too perfect, so mobilize they did.
Rob and Carl hit the road. They spent the next seven months traveling the state, attending picnics, potlucks, church meetings and festivals. They spoke with students, business owners, politicians – anyone who would listen – knowing that change would come from conversation and education, letting their faces be constant reminders of the battle being fought for the well-being of so many Wyomingites.
Once, at a summer art festival in Casper, Carl approached the governor himself.
“Mr. Mead, my name is Carl Oleson, and this is my husband, Rob Johnston,” he told Mead. “I live down the street a block. I pay taxes and I vote.”
It was important, Carl later told a group of college students in Laramie, to look the governor in the eye.
“Every one of those people needs to see the face,” he said, “because you can hate an idea a hell of a lot easier than you can hate your neighbor.”
For much of their lives, Rob and Carl found it best to keep quiet about certain things.
Quiet meant job security. Quiet meant avoiding judgment in social conversation.
But Courage v. Wyoming wasn’t the first time they’d been in the spotlight.
Rob rose from their couch and headed to the basement. He returned with a framed front page of a 7-year-old newspaper. In the photo, Rob sat at their dining room table, a pink AIDS ribbon on his jacket lapel. Carl stood behind him, arm wrapped around his shoulder.
Rob was being recognized on National Coming Out Day in Casper for his work helping Wyoming residents living with HIV and AIDS. The front-page photo was the only public acknowledgement the two had ever made of their relationship in Wyoming.
“I had to get up there and say something at the event, and I just cried,” Rob said. “I tried to talk and couldn’t and just started to cry. I had hated myself for so long, and to finally be at a place as an adult, and to be recognized that I have something to give was overwhelming to me.”
Rob and Carl lived their entire lives with the constant feeling they’d done something wrong simply by being. The reminders that they were less than came from all sources – high school classmates, fraternity brothers, strangers on the street, even their own families.
“The reality is that for the most part, it’s hidden,” Rob said, referring to the struggles the two face every day. “It’s a subtle silence related to things.”
It was important to fight for a new reality, he said. To create a new norm for them and for future generations.
“It should be the kind of thing where if I go in to see a doctor, if I go anywhere where I’m being cared for, they should be open enough in terms of how they ask questions. It should be inclusive of any kind of relationship," he said.
“And unfortunately, in a lot of places, it’s not.”
There’s the judgmental glance while buying wedding bands, the difficulty in finding a doctor, the mortgage company that doesn’t want to work with gay couples.
Those moments, repeated in different forms, always with the question: Am I going to have to fight this?
They fight to live without the speed bumps their heterosexual friends never knew.
And as the two grow older – Rob is 66 and Carl 54 – they fight for the right to be present and make medical decisions should anything happen, for the right to be insured on the same policy, just as any other married couple would be.
“Until our marriage is legally recognized, I’m not his next-of-kin,” Carl said. “Legally, I’m a stranger in our home.”
Their legal journey was mostly a waiting game. They’d read about themselves in the newspaper or watch themselves on TV, only receiving updates from their attorneys when there was movement in the case, which came in seldom but enormous waves.
It was seven months and one day after they had filed Courage v. Wyoming when one of those waves found shore.
On Oct. 6, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from lower circuit courts, effectively legalizing gay marriage in several states including Wyoming.
Carl walked into Rob’s downtown Casper office to prepare for a TV interview.
“Hello, spouse of mine,” Carl said.
“Legal spouse of mine,” he added.
“Even though the governor is choosing to ignore it,” Rob replied.
The celebration was muted. Same-sex couples in Wyoming would not be allowed to wed per the governor’s order. At least not yet.
But with federal law in their favor, Rob took a seat at his desk and typed an email to his employer’s HR department. Carl stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, eyes on the screen.
“As you probably have heard, the Supreme Court has lifted the stays in the appellate courts, thereby recognizing gay marriages in those jurisdictions,” Rob read aloud to Carl. “Could you investigate whether or not it would be possible for me now to pay to have Carl covered by our benefits package?”
Carl nodded. Rob hit “send.”
“Now I’m nervous,” Rob said. “Haven’t been nervous the whole f-----’ time.”
The next day, Rob and Carl found themselves plaintiffs in yet another lawsuit. It claimed that Mead, by blocking same-sex marriages and not recognizing out-of-state marriages following the Supreme Court’s ruling, was infringing upon the constitutional rights of gay couples.
This was no longer a matter of state statute. This fight was now federal, and they had the courts on their side.
Their attorney called. Rob and Carl would stand before a federal judge on Oct. 16, and one of them would testify before the court. It was up to them, their attorney said, to decide who would be best to make the case for legal recognition of their marriage and who would be coolest under pressure if the state’s attorneys got tough with their questions.
Carl had always been the vocal one. He understood the issues better. He could toss around legalese without making the conversation stuffy.
But he was a firecracker.
They made the decision together. Rob had spent decades working with people in recovery from alcohol and drug addictions. He was used to staying cool in delicate situations. He would testify.
When the day came, they made their way to the Ewing T. Kerr Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Casper, just blocks from their home.
Carl took Rob’s hand. It was a gesture of public affection they’d never dreamed of showing in a state such as Wyoming. But they’d also never dreamed they would be so close to marriage equality in their home state.
They sat beside the window inside U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl’s courtroom, flanking the small army of attorneys and fellow plaintiffs who had come to demand the rights guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution.
The hearing was expected to last up to four hours. In about one, Skavdahl gave Rob and Carl’s attorney the last word before telling those assembled that his written decision would come by Oct. 20.
The state presented no evidence. It called no witnesses. Neither Rob nor any of the other plaintiffs had to say a word.
The day the wall fell, Rob waited on the front porch for his spouse to arrive home from work. The decision came at 1:33 p.m. on Oct. 17. Their marriage was legal in their home state.
Carl raced up the driveway; Rob made his way down from the porch. They held one another as the sun dipped below the horizon.
“I love you so much,” Carl said, a tear in his eye. “I love you so much.”
Three days after the ruling, the Rev. Dee Lundberg opened her church’s doors to the Casper community.
“This is a lesson. This is a sign of hope,” she said, standing beside Rob and Carl before a crowded room inside the United Church of Christ.
“Pigs do fly.”
She held out a plastic pig with wings and set it beside a rainbow cupcake on the table in front of her.
“The message here is what you do, the letters you write, the preaching you preach – whatever you do – really does make a difference," she said. "Don’t ever give up, no matter what it is that you’re going after, because the universe arcs toward justice.”
Rob and Carl took their turn to speak. They thanked the community for their undying support over the past seven months. They made sure the kids in the crowd knew that now, no matter who they loved, everything would be OK. The law was now on their side, too.
“Rosa Parks didn’t give up her place on the bus,” Carl said. “And neither did we.”
The sun shone through the charcoal smoke and across their garden on a warm fall evening. Rob grilled burgers and boiled corn while Carl entertained Annie and her mother, Kitty.
It was Oct. 6, and they’d gathered to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision. Mead might have stalled their victory for a time, but the federal courts had spoken. Rob and Carl’s marriage, in their own minds at least, was recognized.
The neighbors gathered around the living room coffee table to eat and tell stories.
Rob and Carl marveled at how much Annie had grown since that night two years earlier when the then-5-year-old asked about the rings.
“Annie,” Kitty said. “Tell Rob what you said to your friends at school.”
Annie snuggled next to Carl on the couch, still wearing her Catholic school uniform.
She’d been working on an assignment about neighbors and had to draw a picture. She drew Rob and Carl getting married.
Two boys at the school grew curious. Annie explained the situation, just as Carl had done two years earlier.
“I have neighbors that are already married, but they’re boys,” Annie said.
“What do you mean?” one boy asked. “Are they seriously married?”
“Well, two boys can’t get married,” the second boy said.
Annie piped back up.
“Yes, they can.”