Story and photos by Laura Latzko, November 2019 issue.
In Oct. 2014, Karen Bailey and Nelda Majors made history as the first LGBT couple to get married in Arizona. They were plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that stuck down the same-sex marriage ban in Arizona.
The two have been together for 61 years, but they weren’t able to tie the knot officially in Arizona until they had been a couple for over 50 years.
“We tell everybody that we waited until 2014 because we didn’t want to rush into anything. We wanted to make sure our relationship was going to last,” Majors said.
The two held a public marriage ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre and reception at the Farm at South Mountain on Nov. 23, 2014. They decided on a public ceremony to celebrate not just their union, but the work of others involved with bringing marriage equality to Arizona.
As they are coming up on their fifth wedding anniversary as a married couple, they are as strong of a unit as ever.
Recently, they have faced a difficult time in their lives as Majors has been battling cancer. She went through chemotherapy treatments after being diagnosed last August and is now in remission.
Throughout it all, Bailey has been by Majors’ side. Their two daughters have also been sources of strength for them. They adopted their great-great nieces Marissa Diamond, 21, and Sharla Curtis, 27, when they were small children.
Bailey and Majors helped to bring change by sharing their story and coming out very publicly after living in the closet for most of their relationship.
Among their top moments have been speaking in Washington, D.C. during the Defense of Marriage Act hearings and serving as grand marshals in the Phoenix Pride Parade.
During the trip to Washington DC, Bailey had a chance to see the impact their story had on others’ lives. “The young people were the ones that would come up to us crying and say thank you. That was so meaningful to me,” Bailey said.
During the federal court case, they became the faces of marriage equality in Arizona, making the issue more relatable as two women who had owned their own business, raised children and built a long-lasting relationship.
“It made an impression with a lot of people when we told our story, and they realized that we’re just like you. We just want our rights too,” Bailey said.
Majors said that being so public was a different experience after having to stay hidden for most of their lives.
“We had been in the closet for so many years, and then all of a sudden, when we got out of the closet, we really got out of the closet,” Majors said.
Although they have not been as active recently due to Majors’ health problems, they have continued to support ONE Community efforts.
Along with their work with the LGBTQ community, the two have given back over the years in different ways, including teaching Sunday school at a church and volunteering for an AIDS organization in Texas and helping to feed the homeless in Scottsdale.
When they first moved to Arizona, Majors volunteered with Equality Arizona. For most of their time together, they lived in Texas. They moved to Arizona in 2005 to give their daughters a fresh start.
They met while attending Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. They developed a strong friendship before pursuing a relationship.
When they first met, Bailey was engaged and knew very little about LGBT people. It was during a spring break trip, when they were apart, that they realized their feelings for each other.
They consider March 2 their anniversary, as it was the day that they first got together as a couple.
They grew up in different times, when LGBT people had to live double lives and keep their relationships a secret. If they didn’t, they could lose their jobs and families, get arrested and face other consequences.
During most of their relationship, their families didn’t know they were together. They were close to each other’s parents, but they never came out to them.
Back then, relationships between same-sex couples just weren’t discussed.
“I didn’t think about living in the closet. That was just a way of life,” Bailey said.
As they got older, they had concerns over legal rights, including custody over their youngest daughter and the ability to make medical decisions for each other.
While living in Texas, Bailey once wasn’t allowed to stay in the room with her when Majors got surgery.
The two were only willing to come out publicly because they had already told their daughters about their relationship. They had always kept it a secret because they didn’t want the two girls’ to be judged by other parents or children.
Curtis and Diamond were supportive from the start when they found out in 2008. This show of support allowed Bailey and Majors to go public and become plaintiffs in the court case.
“Because our girls had accepted us so well, we were able to come out. It was enlightening for us. It was a good feeling, finding out how much people did care,” Bailey said.
Upon coming out publicly, the two found support from different people in their lives, including their neighbors in their Scottsdale community.
“This is a very conservative neighborhood, and all of our neighbors have been really nice. That meant a lot to us,” Majors said.
Married life hasn’t changed their relationship but has made it feel more official legally.
“I think that having the legal rights made it feel different. The next day after our wedding, I thought, ‘My gosh, we really are married.’ If you would have said that to me back in Texas, I would have said you were crazy. So, it was an eye-opening feeling the next day. Sometimes, I get it when we’re filing income taxes,” Bailey said.
Although they have always been very simpatico, Majors and Bailey have always been very different.
Majors played softball from age 12 to her 30s and was an All-American pitcher. In 2002, she became a member of the Softball Legends Hall of Fame.
Both she and Bailey received a 2014 Compete Lifetime Spirit Award.
Bailey has always been the artistic one, doing watercolor painting and ballroom dancing. She danced with Fred Astaire Dance Studios for five years, traveling to cities around the country and to Europe.
The two ran a physical therapy business together up until they retired. Before that, Bailey worked at an oil company.
As mothers, they have tried to raise their daughters to be accepting and stand up for others who are getting bullied. They have also been role models on how to build a strong, long-lasting relationship.
Diamond and Curtis wrote letters in support of them during the court case, which detailed why they thought their mothers should be married. Diamond read her letter during the 2014 marriage ceremony, and Curtis sang Vince Gill’s “Look at Us” at the reception.
In 2018, Majors and Bailey were honored for their roles as activists and mothers with a Valle del Sol Mom of the Year Award. The award is given to women who along with raising families also make contributions to their communities.
Raising their daughters has been one of their biggest accomplishments, one that they never expected. The two girls came to live with them after they had already retired.
Having a strong foundation has allowed Bailey and Majors to build a long-lasting relationship, despite trials and tribulations over the years.
They have been each other’s greatest sources of support during hard times. They have both lost family members, including their siblings. Bailey said starting off as friends and really getting to know each other allowed them to build a deeper bond from the start.
“It’s so natural for Nelda and me. We started out being best friends. I think that that helped because we got to know each other. We got to know what we believed in. Truly she is not only my partner, but she’s my best friend,” Bailey said. “I think it’s just really caring for the person, really caring enough to go through the hard times and the good times and still know that you have each other.”