Former Schoolteachers Call for Full Protections & Brighter Future for LGBT Arizonans
For many years, Rona and Mary Peterson-Johnson found great joy in their work as school teachers. Each day, they taught their classrooms of students, working through each subject and preparing the next generation of brains in their community. But in the back of their minds, the women did harbor some discomfort – the knowledge that legally, they could have lost their jobs at any moment, just because they are lesbians.
“We had principals who were knowledgeable and supportive in their own way,” Rona said, explaining that the feeling was less of a crippling terror and more of an anxious insecurity.”
“What we both feared was that it would take one parent to make an issue out of it,” Rona said. “We just worried that some parent could make an issue of their teacher being gay, and make the case that this would have some bearing on the kind of teacher you are. As a whole, it got better over the years – but you could never assume. There were 30 kids in your classroom each year, and that’s 30 different sets of parents.”
Now that they are retired, their concerns are less. “Mary retired in 2014, and I quit working in 2011, so we just don’t have those same employment concerns anymore,” Rona said.
But at the time, they were always lingering thoughts – and that’s because Mary and Rona live in Arizona, where LGBT people have no statewide protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I think it all would have been different if there was some precedent or we had lived in a state where gay people are protected in employment,” Rona said.
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Rona and Mary have been together since 1987, nearly thirty years of commitment. “We’ve been a family for 28 years – and we finally got married last year,” Rona said, remembering their wedding day, about six months after the freedom to marry came to Arizona. “We had a lot of support all along in our family,” Rona continued. “Our families are very accepting – and our church community is, too.”
The women both come from strong Lutheran backgrounds. When she was young, Rona worked for the Lutheran Church as a campus minister and built a friend base of Lutherans, which led to her taking a similar job in Arizona. She met Mary, who was a grad student at the church where Rona worked, and the two fell in love.
“We met at church and have raised our four kids in that church, have taught all kinds of Sunday school classes in that church, and even joined the choir. The church has been a significant thing for our lives, shaping our values and the kind of work that we do.”
It’s had a big impact on their worldview, too. “I was raised with the idea that inclusiveness is important,” Rona said. “You don’t get to choose certain things in life – and if you believe you’re created by God, then that includes every aspect of you, including being gay. When the Good News becomes Bad News, you have a problem – so I think people fear what they don’t understand, and it kind of comes down to that.”
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Over so many years, without the freedom to marry, Mary and Rona became very good at pushing for the things they needed to support their family and be treated fairly. When they bought a house together in 1992 and were told they would both have to do individual credit checks, the women resisted. When they bought a vehicle together, they were told they’d have to pay an additional premium on the loan because they were not legally married. In both cases, Mary and Rona pushed back – and in both cases, the problem resolved itself.
“I’ve said so many times that I’m not doing something just because of a law denying me equality,” Rona said. “You get pretty good at that after 20 years.”
The couple applied that same confidence when it came to adopting their children. Just a few months ago, Rona was finally able to adopt three of the children that she had been raising alongside Mary – but with no legal rights or connection to them. Previously, Rona delivered one child, Mary delivered another child, and when the women adopted two other children through foster care, Mary was listed as the adoptive parent because Rona was only allowed to be listed as the “other adult,” with no recognition of her parenting responsibilities.
For years, Rona explained in situation after situation that she was just as much of a parent as Mary. But legally, she knew, that explanation wouldn’t have held up. “I didn’t have any legal grounds,” she explained. “We just had to find our way through that, one situation at a time.”
“Never in my life did I expect to be able to be legally married, and then I never expected to be able to adopt legally. The world I grew up in told me very different things from the things I’ve been able to do in the past year and a half. If momentum keeps going, if we passed full LGBT protections, it would feel like it’s about time. It’d be great.” – Rona Peterson-Johnson
Now, Mary and Rona are tired of fighting for the protections and responsibilities that they know all people – including LGBT people – are entitled to. That’s why they’re calling for full protections for members of the LGBT community, in Arizona and nationwide.
The women know there is a bright hope for the future – and that the Arizona community has the wherewithal to push forward until no one is discriminated against because of who they are or who they love.
“Never in my life did I expect to be able to be legally married, and then I never expected to be able to adopt legally. The world I grew up in told me very different things from the things I’ve been able to do in the past year and a half.”
“If momentum keeps going,” she continued, “then it would be great. If we passed full LGBT protections, it would feel like it’s about time. It’d be great.”