For 2 women, lawsuit 27 years in the making

Published July 26, 2004

TAMPA - Paula Schoenwether remembers the old days, when she kept quiet about her sexual orientation.

She would worry that the school officials where she taught in Detroit would find out. That her mother would disown her.

It was the late 1970s. Her partner, Nancy Wilson, was open about her sexual preference. Schoenwether was the opposite.

Twenty-seven years later, the couple has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force the state of Florida and the federal government to recognize their Massachusetts marriage.

"I guess you can say that I've come a long way out of the closet from back in those days," Schoenwether said.

In the mid to late 1970s, Schoenwether, who grew up in West Haven, Mich., was teaching school in Detroit. A friend encouraged her to attend service at the Metropolitan Community Church, one of the few churches at the time that welcomed gays and lesbians.

Wilson, a native of Plainview, N.Y., became a part of Metropolitan Community Church in 1972 as an associate pastor in Boston. In 1975, she moved to Detroit to serve as pastor at MCC.

Schoenwether remembers asking Wilson out. They began dating. Almost 30 years later they are still together. In the interim, they have had their share of ups and downs.

Around the school where Schoenwether taught, word spread that she was a lesbian. She suffered taunts from some students and gossip from fellow teachers. Schoenwether found out later the school was making plans to fire her.

"It was a different time, a time when there was a lot more ignorance," said Schoenwether, now 56. "At times, it was even scary."

In 1979, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Wilson became clerk of the Board of Elders for Metropolitan Community Church and later its pastor.

Schoenwether went back to school to get a master's degree and then a doctorate in clinical psychology. She opened a relationship and marriage counseling practice that catered to gays and lesbians.

"Living in L.A. was a different kind of life," Schoenwether said. "Very cosmopolitan, lots of activism."

The couple moved to Bradenton three years ago. Wilson, 54, is senior pastor at Trinity MCC in Sarasota. Schoenwether has retired from counseling and works as a photographer, with a specialty in animal pictures.

Schoenwether said that since news of the lawsuit broke, she and Wilson have received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls wishing them luck.

"I have a little bit of healthy denial that allows me not to worry," Schoenwether said. "Suing has been more exciting than frightening. I don't think I would have said that 30 years ago."