Last year around this time, people across the country were celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriage. We were in San Francisco, gay flags everywhere. I think for many LGBT people -- particularly those who've grown complacent on the easy West Coast -- it felt like the end of a long struggle. It wasn't.
This year, states across the South passed anti-LGBT discrimination bills. Christian-owned businesses across the country are fighting for "religious liberty," the right to deny LGBT people service. The headlines blend together after a while. But behind those news stories are real people.
For the past month, Beth B. Nakamura and I have spent time with two of those people. Three and a half years ago, Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer tried to buy a wedding cake. What happened next destroyed their lives -- continues to do so to this day. I learned a lot watching them about what it means to be on the other end of the news cycle. No matter which side you agree with, I think it's worth understanding what people endure after they have become international fodder.
Here's part of the story:
It's just a cake, Laurel Bowman-Cryer used to tell her wife, Rachel. But three and a half years have passed, and the hate mail keeps coming.
Back in 2013, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa made headlines when they refused to make the lesbians' wedding cake. A state official, in a move that's redefined his political career, eventually ordered the bakers to pay $135,000.
The Bowman-Cryers have received thousands of Facebook messages, each one calling them fat or evil, the dumb lesbians who ruined those Christian bakers' lives.
As they waited for their daughter's school bus this May, Rachel's cell phone dinged with a new missive.
"I am buying up my ammo right now you filthy, ugly, disgusting, fat, stupid, cruel, anti-Christian piece of liberal scum," she read aloud. "I am getting ready for the war so I hope you have a good hiding place, you sick, disgusting, miserable, piece of degenerate lesbian scum."
The Bowman-Cryers say they never wanted the money, which remains locked in a government account. They say they never wanted a war.
For three and a half years, they have hidden, believing in time their names would disappear from the headlines. They didn't answer the phone. They declined hundreds of interviews, quit their jobs and stopped leaving the house.
Their silence has not protected them. As the Bowman-Cryers retreated, the fury over their case grew louder.
The bakers, Aaron and Melissa Klein, appealed their fines and hired former President George H.W. Bush's White House lawyer. They toured the country with presidential candidate Ted Cruz as the face of a new fight for business owners' religious freedom.
The legalization of same-sex marriage isn't the end of the story, the Kleins told crowds from Iowa to Washington, D.C. The government, they said, wants to force Christian business owners to help gay people marry. The solution, the Kleins warned receptive lawmakers, would be legislation protecting religious liberty. Arkansas, North Carolina and Mississippi have approved bills since then, curtailing the civil rights gay people fought to win.
"Filthy dirt bag," Rachel kept reading. "You are ruining this country, and we will not let you do it."
She scrolled to the next message, this one from a Saudi Arabian man who said their case had inspired men there to whip gay people with canes. They bought wedding cakes for the beatings.
The Bowman-Cryers try to shrug off the messages that call them fat and ugly. What they can't handle is the guilt, the nagging feeling that they've made life worse for gay people elsewhere. Were they responsible for the proposed laws in the South? For abuse in the Middle East?
It was never just a cake, the 32-year-old women realize now.
With the Kleins hoping to put their appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, their case may yet shape the future for Christian business owners and LGBT customers across the country.
Now, for the first time, Rachel and Lauren have given extended interviews on the controversy — spending hours with journalists from The Oregonian/OregonLive to share the impact the case has had on their lives.
The school bus rounded the curve toward the Bowman-Cryer's house. It stopped, and Rachel climbed the stairs to escort their 9-year-old home.
In the beginning, Lizzy and her younger sister were the reason the Bowman-Cryers married. The girls were the reason the couple had turned down interview requests. And this spring, the girls became the reason the Bowman-Cryers began to suspect they couldn't remain quiet forever.