With same-sex marriage legal, Yolo clerk-recorder Oakley on to new crusades
07/15/2013 12:00 AM
10/06/2014 5:43 PM
Clutching sprays of pink roses beneath a towering pine, Terri LeDoux and Gail Klauer officially became "wife and wife" last week on the lawn of Yolo County's administration building.
Inside, on the building's second floor, one of their heroes in the gay-marriage fight in California stayed in her office, reluctant to intrude.
"They didn't invite me to their wedding," said Freddie Oakley, the Yolo County clerk and recorder, who has made national headlines for her bold public stand in support of gay marriage. "It wouldn't be appropriate for me to barge out there."
Thrilled that "the battle is won," Oakley said, she is ready to move beyond the issue and focus on other demands of her job, which include managing county elections and protecting voters' rights.
Yet nearly every day, as Yolo County issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples down the hall from her office, she cannot help but be reminded of a mini-crusade that caused her to resign from her Baptist church, prompted "burn in hell" messages on her answering machine and raised a minor rebellion within her staff.
Oakley became a face of the gay-marriage battle when, in 2007, she began issuing "certificates of inequality" to same-sex couples who came to her office seeking marriage licenses. She was a media regular, giving voice to those who saw the issue as a critical test of civil rights. She incurred the wrath of conservative groups that called for her resignation.
In the aftermath of last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively overturned California's same-sex marriage ban, Oakley said she is relieved that she no longer must serve as "the bus driver in Birmingham in 1954," denying gay people their rights.
"Holy cow. I can't believe it finally happened," said Oakley. "I'm still in a state of wonder about it all."
At first blush, Oakley, 64, might seem an unlikely ambassador for gay rights. She is an evangelical Christian and grandmother, married to her husband, John, for 44 years.
But like her husband, who is a civil rights attorney, she harbors a burning sense of social justice and has been a lifelong rabble-rouser, she said.
On a recent weekday morning in her office in downtown Woodland, Oakley was a colorful whirlwind, darting in and out wearing a bright-green blouse, splashy scarf and khaki pants, her toenails painted eggplant purple.
"I was born fearless," Oakley said. And despite growing up "rich and white," she said, "I care deeply about people who have fewer advantages than I have had."
A poster of Martin Luther King Jr. and a photograph of musician Billy Joe Shaver, along with family pictures, decorate her walls. Scattered on her shelves, along with CDs of Bach and Mozart, are the incisor of an ancient primate and shards of turtle shells that she discovered during a paleontology dig in Wyoming, a trek she makes annually.
On the floor lay her beloved golden retriever, Blessing, who accompanies her to work each day.
Effervescent and cheerful, Oakley is not a seeker of the spotlight, her eldest daughter insisted.
"She just wants to do the right thing," said Adelie Barry, who lives in Woodland with her husband, Jeffrey, and three young children.
"Neither of my parents are afraid to stand up for their beliefs," even if doing so gets them into hot water, Barry said. "I totally appreciate my mom's activism. I am very, very proud of her."
Oakley, whose formal first name is Fredericka, spent her childhood in the scenic bubble of Mendocino County, where she was a restless high achiever who fought boredom as she earned straight A's on her report cards.
Her late father, Leonard Barvitz, was a retired "rocket scientist" who ran a hardware store. Her late mother, Zella, raised horses. Neither was particularly religious, Oakley said, but her maternal grandmother regularly took Freddie to Episcopal services.
As a young teenager, Oakley was a rebellious firecracker. She questioned her teachers at Fort Bragg High School. She checked out books, including "For Whom the Bell Tolls," that the city librarian thought were too racy for her. In 1964, during the Vietnam conflict, she received a stern scolding from the principal for posting a sign in her school locker that read, "F**K War."
Shortly after that episode, at age 16, she was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, after scoring "in the upper one-half of 1 percent" on her SAT exam.
At Berkeley, she studied physical anthropology, a program that included working with a colony of primates. Oakley met her husband during college and married at age 20. Both attended Yale, he as a law student and she in the master's program for physical anthropology.
Oakley tried teaching but thought she would be better suited for a career in public service. After she and her husband moved to Davis in 1975, she served as Yolo County's chief deputy public guardian, directing an office that offered care to frail, elderly and mentally ill people.
She won a seat on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors in 1997, and two years later began serving as chief deputy clerk and recorder. She was elected clerk and recorder in 2002 and is serving her third term, earning about $116,000 per year.
On Valentine's Day 2007, the push to legalize gay marriage became a focal point in California. As the state Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of California's ban on gay unions, same-sex couples looking to make a point filed into Oakley's office requesting marriage licenses.
It pained her, she said, to turn them down.
"Unlike the vast majority of my colleagues statewide, I went to that counter myself and told them I couldn't marry them," she said. "It was odious, because I felt that I was enforcing a religiously based law that was just wrong."
Oakley said she concluded she "could quit my job, break the law or try to change the law."
She opted for the latter.
A hero to many
Even as some public officials chided her for making a political stand, Oakley began issuing documents to same-sex couples that read: "I issue this Certificate of Inequality to you because your choice of marriage partner displeases some people whose displeasure is, apparently, more important than principals of equality."
She was among the first to issue authentic licenses to same-sex couples during a short legal window of opportunity in 2008, though some of her staffers were unhappy about facilitating gay unions.
Oakley maintained that her stance was based on her personal beliefs. And she said she never felt a conflict between her religious faith, which she looks to for strength and humility, and her belief in the right of gay people to marry.
She is keenly aware that some believe the Bible forbids marriage between two people of the same sex.
"My response is that you can take the Bible at face value and cleave to every rule, but if you did you would have to live in an ultra-orthodox community," she said.
Nevertheless, Oakley's activism led to her separation from her church, First Baptist in Davis, after protesters began picketing the building and hurling insults at congregants.
"I had to make it stop, so I resigned my membership and stopped attending regular services," she said.
She said she has no lingering bitterness about the experience.
"I'm over it," said Oakley. "I feel no sense of betrayal or disappointment."
She and her husband attend another church now, and First Baptist's pastor, Glen Snyder, remains a friend.
Snyder said he never asked Oakley to leave the congregation but that she agreed to do so after learning of a potential boycott of the church by gay-marriage opponents. The pastor believes marriage should occur only between a man and a woman, and said he and Oakley have had spirited debates about the issue.
"Freddie is a fine woman and I think highly of her and John," he said. "I probably have spent more time with them in their home than with any other parishioners, and we are still very good friends."
To people like LeDoux and Klauer, who became teary-eyed during their outdoor ceremony in front of friends and relatives last week, Oakley is an icon. They would have been thrilled to have her at their wedding, they said.
"To me, she is a hero," said Klauer after she and LeDoux exchanged vows.
Oakley is flattered, but hardly sees herself in that light. She is merely a public servant, she said, trying to do good.
Lately, she has been thinking about steps that election officials can take to ensure all Americans have "equal access to the ballot box," now that the U.S. Supreme Court has stricken down key elements of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Oakley is prepared for "a wholesale, rock 'n' roll" battle elsewhere in the country, she said. She will monitor events closely from her outpost in Woodland.
"I'm not an important person, but I have a very important job," she said. "I take it seriously, and I really, really want to make a difference."
Call The Bee's Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @cynthia_hubert.