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‘We share it with a whole community’: 5-year anniversary of same-sex marriage in Oklahoma an occasion to remember, look forward, proponents say

After marrying her longtime partner, Mary, in 2014, Sharon Bishop-Baldwin found herself adjusting to a whole new way of speaking.

It wasn’t easy at first.

“I had trouble sometimes just saying ‘my wife,’ ” she said. “Like if I was calling to get a prescription for Mary. They’d say ‘what’s your relationship?’ And before I replied, there’d be a moment of hesitation.”

Part of the problem, Bishop-Baldwin said, was her anticipation of the reaction. Too often back then, it was an awkward one. “They might respond oddly,” she said, causing a little “nervous embarrassment” for both parties.

But today, five years later, all of that has changed.

“Now the word ‘wife’ rolls off my tongue without a second thought,” Bishop-Baldwin said.

And the reactions?

For the most part, they’ve smoothed out, too, she said — “to just such a matter-of-fact transaction.”

Society, Bishop-Baldwin believes, is finally getting used to its new reality. And with it, acceptance of same-sex relationships is slowly growing.

This Sunday, Oct. 6, will officially mark five years since same-sex couples in Oklahoma were first legally permitted to marry.

For the Bishop-Baldwins and other couples who took advantage of it that first week in 2014, it means their own five-year anniversary is at hand. And with that, an opportunity also comes to both reflect and look forward.

The Bishop-Baldwins, whose lawsuit in response to a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in 2004 paved the way, became the first to claim a marriage license at Tulsa County Courthouse, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case and the judge lifted a stay.

The couple will commemorate the five-year milestone, they said, with some special company: They’re having dinner with Sue Barton and Gay Phillips, the other couple involved in their long 10-year legal battle.

“That seemed like the appropriate thing to do,” Mary Bishop-Baldwin said. “They were with us every step of the way.”

Barton and Phillips had been married previously elsewhere, and won the right that same day to have Oklahoma recognize their union.

John David and Jason Bragg-Sutton, formerly of the Tulsa area, will celebrate their 5-year anniversary on Oct. 11.

The Nowata couple had been together five years before marriage became legal, John David said. Secure in their bond, they didn’t feel like they needed marriage to affirm that.

However, that doesn’t mean they don’t see the value in it, John David said: “It’s not a gay marriage certificate that I hold, it’s a marriage certificate. The ability to say that shows it doesn’t matter. I’m on the same level as others and equal to them.”

The couple were married in 2014 at a park in Owasso, joined by a few friends and family.

“It is a huge thing,” John David added of the anniversary. “It feels like we’ve accomplished something. It’s definitely a milestone.”

Complicating any celebratory plans, he said, are the demands of parenthood. With six adopted children, “we may just be taking a nap that day,” John David laughed. “Maybe we can go out for a quiet dinner — just relax and be married for a little while rather than being parents.”

Rush to the courthouse

Surprised like everyone else by the unexpected news of Oct. 6, 2014, Toby Jenkins, director and CEO of Oklahomans for Equality, joined other marriage equality proponents at the Tulsa courthouse, where he made sure the Bishop-Baldwins would be first to get a license.

“I said nobody gets married until Sharon and Mary do,” he said, wanting to make sure their role was properly recognized.

A total of 21 couples would be issued licenses that first day. From there, the surge continued, Jenkins said.

Over the first year of legal same-sex marriage, around 1,200 licenses would be issued in Tulsa, and 4,200 statewide, said Jenkins, whose organization tracked the numbers.

The painstaking task involved some guesswork, he cautioned, since licenses don’t identify male or female, just spouse names.

Primarily concerned with making sure all counties were complying, Jenkins didn’t pursue numbers after that.

But he’s happy to report that “in five years, there’s not been a court clerk who’s refused (a license) that we are aware of. It does feel like our elected officials are willing to follow the rule of law.”

A few months after Oklahoma began issuing licenses in June 2015, same-sex marriage became legal nationwide thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Undoubtedly, it’s contributed to the rapid rise in the number of same-sex households in which the couples are married. The rate has more than doubled over a decade, from 26.6% in 2008 to nearly 60% in 2017, according to the most recent data available, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey.

The survey estimated that in 2017 there were 935,229 same-sex households in the U.S., of which married couples made up 555,492.

That growth is one reason advocates like Jenkins believe same-sex marriage is here to stay.

“There are so many LGBTQ Americans who have exercised their legal right to ever strip us totally of that,” he said.

In addition, Mary Bishop-Baldwin believes, there are fewer people today who would even want to take it away.

“Too many straight people know gay people, and love gay people, and now see what marriage means to them,” she said.

Both Bishop-Baldwins were editors at the Tulsa World when the lawsuit was filed, and Mary Bishop-Baldwin is still an assistant editor.

Never forget

While Jenkins is grateful for marriage, the occasion of the anniversary also reminds him of its limitations.

“Marriage fixed so much,” he said, “but the sad reality is there’s a lot it didn’t … employment protection, housing protection and certainly it has not stopped hate crimes. … it hasn’t changed people’s hearts.”

Just this past July, a mural at the Oklahomans for Equality center was vandalized, a reminder that anti-LGBTQ sentiment still exists in the community, he said.

Jenkins also can’t help feeling sad, too, for all the Oklahomans for whom Oct. 6, 2014, came too late. “There were so many people who needed those protections but who missed out on it,” he said.

For Oklahoma’s LGBTQ community going forward, Jenkins said, it’s important not to forget how it got here. He thinks it’s already become too easy to take marriage for granted.

“We need to remember how forever indebted we are” to the Bishop-Baldwins, Barton and Phillips, he said. “We are able to get married because of their work, which was courageous and at times isolating for them.”

For their part, the Bishop-Baldwins say they would rather people remember the struggle, and what the situation once was for same-sex couples.

A good reminder of it, they said, comes every year in the form of their original anniversary.

Many years before they were allowed to marry, the Bishop-Baldwins held a commitment ceremony.

“It was at a beach house in Florida — and at the time, that was all the wedding we thought we’d ever have,” said Sharon Bishop-Baldwin.

As a result, that original anniversary — which they will celebrate for the 20th year next March 26 — will always have a special meaning to them.

But this week, they added, the focus will be on Oct. 6.

“It’s not just a celebration about us,” Mary Bishop-Baldwin said. “We share it with a whole community of people — a whole community who never thought they’d have the opportunity to get married.”


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OU in dispute with partners in housing development

A dispute between the University of Oklahoma and its partners in a campus housing development has drawn in two hard-hitting law firms from opposite ends of the country and could have long-term implications for OU, the state of Oklahoma and public financing nationally.

It’s a complicated story, one in which lawyers from Los Angeles and New York call each other liars long distance and threaten multimillion-dollar lawsuits because a new residential complex called Cross Village sits mostly empty on the south side of the OU campus.

At stake are more than $250 million in bonds issued through a state trust, the Oklahoma Development Financing Authority, or ODFA. Neither the state nor the university are legally responsible for the debt, but OU’s partners argue the university’s — and the state’s — credit and reputations could be significantly damaged if what they call a “moral obligation” to investors, amounting to about $7 million a year, is not met.

OU and the top credit analyst for the state say they disagree; last week, the rating agency S&P Global issued a report keeping the university’s long-term debt rating at A+.

But in mid-September, S&P downgraded the Cross bonds for a second time, to CC negative — meaning S&P considers default “a virtual certainty.”

The situation has raised quiet concerns throughout state government. Oklahoma has about $2 billion in so-called “moral obligation” debt, and while structured differently than the OU bonds, such instruments finance everything from the state’s highways to the renovation of the state Capitol. All of these bonds rest on the assumption that the state will continue meeting financial obligations it cannot by law enter into formally.

“We are monitoring the situation at the university closely,” said Andrew Messer, deputy treasurer for policy and debt management and state bond adviser, last month. “We are confident the situation will not impact the state’s credit rating. A decision has been made that may have implications for the university, though.”

Broadly speaking, the partners say OU is not doing all it can to make the project succeed, and may even be hoping it fails. Specifically, they say the university has made Cross Village financially unsustainable by reneging on an informal agreement to pay $7 million a year through a complicated lease arrangement.

OU denies the charges, and says it was well within its legal rights when it chose not to renew two leases in July.

“The university has failed to honor its commitments,” insisted Steve Hicks, whose nonprofit company partnered with OU on the Cross Village project.

Without the $7 million, and given Cross Village’s low occupancy, the project will not be able to meet its debt service payments.

OU says that’s not its problem.

“Our experience with the leases was not what we had hoped,” said OU General Counsel Anil Gollahalli. “We decided the solution was not to subsidize a private company with $7 million a year in taxpayer money.”

From the beginning

The saga began in 2012, when OU initiated a study of its student housing. Citing studies indicating students who live on campus have higher graduation rates than those who don’t, the university administration — led by then-President David Boren — sought to upgrade housing for non-freshman, who in most cases are required to live on-campus.

Two residential colleges — a format favored by several upper-tier universities and long a goal of Boren’s — opened in 2017. In the meantime, OU entered into an agreement with Hicks’ company, Louisiana-based Provident Resources, to create Provident Oklahoma Education Resources Inc., or PORE, to develop and manage Cross Village.

RBC Capital Markets of Baltimore came aboard as the bond underwriter.

Under the terms of the agreement, OU would lease the 10.5 acres on which Cross Village sits to PORE, which would own the buildings themselves.

Plans called for four four-story buildings with 1,200 beds in 1-, 2- and 4-bedroom configurations. Also included were 40,000 square feet of commercial and “flex” space and 1,000 parking spaces. As part of the deal, OU received the rent from the land lease — $20 million — up front.

According to Hicks, land lease rents for such projects are usually paid annually, but Provident went along with the front-loaded payout “because of the financial plight of the university.”

OU has been in a cash bind for several years due to a series of events, including lower than expected occupancy rates in the new residential colleges and sharp reductions in state appropriations.

Also as part of the deal, OU negotiated leases for Cross Village’s commercial space and parking, with the intention of recouping at least part of the $7 million payment through rent and parking licenses.

OU’s partners, though, say it was understood that the payments would be an annual obligation to insure the project could meet its bond payments. According to the bond prospectus, those payments are $6.5 million this year but rise to $13.6 million in 2020 and to $15.7 million in 2029, and remain that much until the bonds are paid off in 2057.

In a Sept. 6 letter, David Dubrow, a New York attorney representing bond trustee UMB Bank, says the university “assured investors that even though the leases for the commercial space and parking were renewable on an annual basis, the University intended to lease all of the commercial and parking spaces for the life of the bonds ...”

State entities cannot enter multi-year obligations without voter approval, though, which is why the leases and bond documents say the agreements are subject to annual renewal.

In a reply to Dubrow’s letter, dated Sept. 10, Los Angeles attorney Molly Stephens, speaking for OU, says the university “broke no promise.” She goes on to state other assertions in the letter are “a flat-out lie” and accuses Dubrow of ethical misconduct because he leaked the Sept. 6 letter to the Wall Street Journal and other financial publications.

Stephens says the letter was “replete with patently false, misleading, and disparaging comments,” which were published in stories derogatory to the university.

Dubrow, in his Sept. 6 letter, threatens litigation; Stephens, in her response, says bring it on. Both demand preservation of documents related to Cross Village.

On Sept. 30, Provident’s Hicks sent OU an Open Records Act request demanding documents related to the Cross Center. The request suggests Provident is willing to pull influential people outside the university into the fray, and can be interpreted as either an attempt to gain leverage in negotiations or dig up ammunition for a court fight, or both.

Debate heats over Cross Village

Cross Village opened in the middle of 2018; at about the same time Boren, the development’s biggest advocate, departed. Whether that made a difference in Cross Village’s struggles is debatable, but Boren’s successor, Jim Gallogly, made no secret of his disdain for it.

The apartments, ranging from 300 to 875 square feet and renting for as much as $30,000 (split four ways) per school year, did not find much of a market. Occupancy has never exceeded 35 percent, and the commercial space is almost empty. OU says it brought in only $40,000 from its $7 million investment during the first year of Cross Village’s operation.

Even after Gallogly abruptly left the university earlier this year, OU continued to look for ways out of the deal.

“The numbers are the numbers, regardless of who’s in charge,” said Gollahalli, the OU general counsel.

Gollahalli said OU wants Cross Village to succeed, but that it “just hasn’t been hitting the target.”

Hicks said it hasn’t been hitting the target because OU is aiming at the wrong one.

“(Cross) was designed to be freshman or sophomore housing,” he said.

In an April 25 letter to the university, Hicks complained that the two residential colleges, Headington and Dunham halls, were being opened to freshman while Cross Village was not.

“This decision is a substantial and apparently intentional abridgment of the terms of the Cross Village development,” he wrote.

According to Hicks, the ground lease that provided OU $20 million up front specified that the residential colleges and Cross “were to be treated on an equal basis regarding the mix of targeted tenants ...”

Hicks’ Sept. 30 open records request includes documents related to that decision as well as the decision to include full kitchens in the apartments as recommended by a market study included in the bond prospectus.

Hicks also broadened the field of fire by requesting documents related to the involvement of two well-known Oklahoma City businessmen, Realtor John Kennedy and former Devon Energy executive Klaholt Kimker, in the Cross Village project.

Kennedy’s company KCT was a consultant on the development.

Underlying Provident’s and Dubrow’s line of attack is the suggestion that OU wants Cross Village to fail so that it can buy up the discounted bonds at a fraction of their face value.

Such a ploy has been rumored since last winter.

In his Sept. 6 letter, Dubrow says “reliable sources” have told him “the University’s strategy is to drag things out until it can get ownership of the Project at pennies on the dollar.”

Stephens, OU’s attorney, heatedly denied the accusation.

“Nothing can be further from the truth,” she wrote to Dubrow. “No University official has ever expressed a desire to take over Cross. To the contrary, the University has been consistent that it supports Cross and wants to see it succeed.”


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FDA warns against use of vaping products with THC, especially those from black market; legal industry stresses importance of testing

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday recommended consumers stop using vape products with THC amid an ongoing investigation into the cause of vaping-related illnesses nationwide, at least one of which involved an underage Tulsa County resident.

Those involved in the business and legal enforcement aspects of Oklahoma’s medical cannabis industry have, in the meantime, stressed the importance of only using cannabis products that have undergone reliable testing.

“Personally, I look at labs as one of the first lines of defense for the medicine those patients are consuming,” said Kyle Felling, who runs F.A.S.T. Laboratories, a medical cannabis testing facility with offices in Oklahoma and Arkansas. “As a lab, we figure out how much medicine is in there, but we also help the patient be assured about what’s not in there, things like pesticides, heavy metals and E. coli.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of Saturday reported receiving more than 1,000 cases across 48 states and one U.S. territory of lung injuries associated with the use of e-cigarette or vaping products. Of those, 18 deaths have been confirmed in 15 states.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, there had been four probable or confirmed cases of lung injury in Oklahoma as of last week, one of which involved a Tulsa County resident younger than 18. Two of the three other cases were reported in Oklahoma County, while the third is in the northeast region of the state.

Two of the three other patients are between 18 and 34 years old. The other is at least 35 years old.

The FDA and CDC warned Friday against the use of any THC vape products, as well as any vape product obtained off the street or from “other illicit or social sources.” NPR reported that Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, told reporters Thursday the agency was “looking at a very concerning outbreak” and said, “The data we’re getting does not suggest this has peaked.”

Scott Schaeffer, managing director for the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information, told the Tulsa World recently that he believed stigma associated with the situation could keep people from seeking medical attention more promptly.

He said the “cluster of cases” in the news indicates to the agency that vaping, despite being promoted as an alternative to smoking, is not a “completely safe” method of consumption.

“Although there seems to be this indication it might be related to some THC type products, especially ones that are purchased on the street, not all of the people who have developed severe symptoms have vaped those types of products,” Schaeffer said.

Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Gary Cox last week recommended those who use vaping products discontinue doing so pending further inquiry after news broke of someone in Tulsa County being affected.

OSDH Communications Director Tony Sellars said while no one is currently hospitalized in Oklahoma for a vaping-related injury, 78 percent of the 578 people who gave the CDC information reported using products with THC. Thirty-seven percent of those who said they used THC vaping products told the CDC they did so exclusively, Sellars said.

House Bill 2612 took legal effect in late August, setting up an extensive regulatory framework that included a requirement for testing cannabis products in Oklahoma. But authorities have warned that THC vape products sold elsewhere are not subject to the level of oversight as those sold at dispensaries.

Felling, from F.A.S.T. Laboratories, said his facility has processed more than 9,300 samples for Oklahoma businesses since the beginning of the year, leading to more than 16,000 tests so far for solvents, THC and CBD potency, heavy metals and pesticides. He recommended patients seeking cannabis products purchase them only from licensed dispensaries who are able to readily produce documentation of the test results they received.

Felling said it can be costly for businesses to submit test samples but said it is essential in order for shops to remain compliant in the eyes of the OMMA. He said his laboratory is licensed with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs because the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority hasn’t yet began approving its own laboratory licenses.

The OMMA is projected to begin issuing laboratory licenses by next year, which Felling said will eventually come with a requirement for accreditation from an organization such as the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation.

“It helps weed out good labs from bad ones,” Felling said of the accreditation standard. “It at least makes certain that you have certain processes in place that gives some sort of validity to the results you produce.”

A previous CDC news release indicates authorities identified vitamin E acetate in several samples after the FDA began testing products. However, the CDC said then that “no one substance, including vitamin E acetate, has been identified in all of the samples tested.”

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority’s newest emergency rules indicate products should undergo testing for E. coli and salmonella, as well as for metals, pesticides, mycotoxins and solvents such as acetone and propane. Vitamin E acetate, also known as tocopheryl acetate, is not among the chemicals listed in the testing rules.

However, the rules say growers and processors must check for contaminants and filth to include “any biological or chemical agent, foreign matter or other substances” that could compromise safety.

Lawrence Pasternack, one of the leaders of the Oklahoma Cannabis Liberty Alliance patient advocacy group, said he believed the problem is likely from “something deep in the supply chain” such as an “adulterated carrier or additive.” He also said the containers used in street products could present their own safety risks and warned against people putting additives in products after buying them.

“While this is an event whose cause is outside of the (legal) cannabis supply chain itself, it is nevertheless a good reminder that the products we consume should be tested,” Pasternack said. “So long as the government continues to drag its feet on cannabis reform, they are letting ideology override science and public health.”


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