The Woman Trying to Change Alabama's Gay Marriage Ban

Alabama state representative Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham), Alabama's only openly gay legislator, speaks at an Equality Alabama rally in Birmingham, Ala. on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Tamika Moore, AL.com)

Like the rest of the country, Alabama Rep. Patricia Todd kept a close eye on the Supreme Court this week as it prepared to announce a pair of landmark decisions in the debate over same-sex marriage.

Todd is Alabama's first and only openly gay state elected official. The Democrat and her partner had already decided to get married in Massachusetts this fall, regardless of what the high court decided. Now that the court has struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Todd isn't just planning a wedding—she's contemplating a lawsuit.

The court did not invalidate the same-sex marriage bans in place in Alabama and three-dozen other states, but legal experts say it did open the door to lawsuits challenging those bans. Soon after the court issued its ruling, Todd said she would sue Alabama to ensure her future marriage is recognized.

Todd said the Supreme Court's ruling is a chance for her and her partner, Jennifer Clarke, to “provide leadership” in the fight for gay rights.

“I have spent all my life fighting for equality,” Todd, 57, said Thursday. “I have an opportunity to change Alabama, and I'm going to take it.”

Todd was first elected in 2006 – the same year 81 percent of Alabama voters approved the state's same-sex marriage ban. She barely won her first go-round in electoral politics, defeating her opponent by just 59 votes in a run-off election.

But she quickly won over her district, if her re-election campaign four years later was any indication: She ran unopposed in Alabama's 54th District, which includes Birmingham.

She doesn't expect to be so fortunate when she is up for re-election in 2014, especially because her lawsuit against Alabama's same-sex marriage ban is likely to bring her plenty of attention.

Already, she said, she's received calls from citizens who argue a lawmaker has no business leading the charge against a duly-enacted state law supported by an overwhelming majority of voters.

Todd hopes other Alabama citizens will join in her lawsuit, and she plans to seek support from national gay rights groups. Like many others, she expects this week's Supreme Court ruling will spur challenges to gay marriage bans in many states.

“If we can it get moving in Alabama, we can get it anywhere,” she said.

Todd's path to the statehouse reflects the trajectory of the gay rights movement around the country: She went from being an outsider and activist to a lawmaker advocate.

Living a “sheltered” life and married to a man in the 1970s, Todd recalled, she came across a copy of Ms. Magazine and read it “cover to cover.”

“I was appalled,” she said, recalling the moment she became aware of inequality and civil rights issues all around her. She soon joined the women's and civil rights movements in Alabama. Eventually, after coming out as a lesbian, she became involved in gay rights issues.

But it wasn't until the state legislature considered putting same-sex marriage on the 2006 ballot that her attention focused squarely on the statehouse. She and others would visit the Capitol to lobby against the measure, but were shocked by the reception they received.

“We were treated so poorly by people in the legislature,” she recalled. “I was so angry.”

After one lobbying trip, Todd and the other activists figured there was only one way to change the reality in their state. “We decided we would never change the conversation until one of us was sitting at the table,” she said.

Todd is aware that her legal fight could end up costing her the seat she fought to win not long ago.

By most accounts, same-sex marriage remains deeply unpopular in states like Alabama, among voters from both parties. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of people living in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas were opposed to gay marriage. Alabama's top Republican officials have promised to defend the state's same-sex marriage ban to protect the will of the voters.

But none of that is deterring Todd, even as she faces another improbable campaign for the legislature.

“Should I lose the election because of this lawsuit,” she said, “then so be it.”