When Deidre Downs was crowned Miss America more than a decade ago, the idea of legalized gay marriage and Miss America later marrying her same-sex partner in Alabama would have been an unimaginable future.
Times have changed.
Former Miss Alabama 2004 and Miss America 2005 Deidre Downs Gunn married her girlfriend, attorney Abbott Jones, in a ceremony Saturday at the Birmingham Museum of Art. They flew out Sunday night from Atlanta for a honeymoon in Ireland.
By Monday morning, their wedding was the talk of Alabama. About 200 people who attended were sworn to secrecy until after the event, with People magazine having an exclusive agreement to share the news.
Deidre, a UAB obstetrician-gynecologist specializing in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, and Abbott shared their joy from their honeymoon in a statement to AL.com on Monday.
“When we turned to recess down the aisle after the ceremony and really took notice of all of the family and friends who had gathered to celebrate our marriage, we felt so blessed to be surrounded by so much love and support,” they wrote in a joint statement.
Their union may have left Alabama surprised and a little stunned, but perhaps also wowed by the boldness and beauty of the ceremony.
“It was beautiful; it was gorgeous,” said Nan Teninbaum, president of the Miss Alabama Pageant, who attended the ceremony. “I love and I support Deidre. I wish her the very best of everything.”
The ceremony was officiated by an openly lesbian minister, the Rev. Jennifer Sanders, pastor of Beloved Community Church in Birmingham.
“It was a beautiful wedding,” Sanders said. “They are a wonderful, happy couple. It was a joy to perform the ceremony.”
Some observers saw it as a breakthrough, a potentially game-changing moment in the fight for gay and lesbian rights in America and in one of the most conservative states in the nation. Deidre is a 2002 graduate of Samford University, a Baptist-affiliated school where she earned her bachelor’s degree in history. Samford was founded by the Alabama Baptist Convention, and Southern Baptists in the state and nationally remain on the record as staunchly opposed to gay marriage.
“I think it has a huge impact because Samford is so proud of her,” said Brit Blalock, founder of SAFE Samford, a gay and lesbian alumni group which has lobbied for fair treatment and representation at the school. “That’s one of their prize graduates. She’s done so much for the community. For the LBGTQ community at Samford, it’s nice to see her being so authentic.”
Deidre, in a statement to AL.com while on her honeymoon, responded.
“One of my favorite quotes is by Coco Chanel,” she said. “‘Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself.’ It can take courage to be who you are and to realize your worth as a person, but once you do it is such a beautiful and freeing thing. And once you do, that allows you to live with authenticity and compassion — for yourself and for others.”
Blalock noted that Seasons, the alumni magazine at Samford that prints alumni wedding announcements, declined to print a wedding announcement submitted last year for two men who were married. She wonders if the same would hold true if Deidre submitted her same-sex wedding announcement.
A spokesman for Samford University, contacted Monday, said the university did not immediately plan to make a statement about Deidre and her marriage.
Will Deidre’s coming-out affect her perception at Samford?
“I’m sure there are some people who are shocked and may re-evaluate how they feel about her,” Blalock said. “That would be a shame, because she has established herself as an outstanding individual. This new information doesn’t change anything about her character, in my opinion.”
Blalock, a 2008 Samford graduate, remembers attending the Miss Alabama ceremony on the Samford campus when Deidre was crowned Miss Alabama in 2004.
“She was very well-beloved on campus, talented, beautiful,” Blalock said. “Samford was very proud to lift her name up. I hope they are still proud because she is a phenomenal person. During her time as Miss America, she was campaigning for cancer research.”
Now, Deidre can be a role model for lesbians unashamed of their sexuality. “It makes me very proud,” Blalock said.
As a teenager and young adult, Deidre was a member of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham. “She’s a wonderful person and a fabulous doctor,” said the Rev. Sarah Shelton, pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant the past 16 years. “I want nothing but her happiness. I am very proud of her.”
For the newly married couple, their wedding was not a political statement, but an expression of love.
“Abbott and Deidre’s wedding was a classic Southern fairy tale — a photographer’s dream,” said Kelli Hewett Taylor, owner of Kelli & Daniel Taylor Photography. “We loved being part of it. Every detail was soft, beautiful and elegant. Those two are so in love. There’s an undeniable electricity when they are together. I think you can really see that, in person or in camera.”
Abbott said in a statement to AL.com: “Deidre is the most beautiful person I’ve ever met, both inside and out. I have no doubt she will continue to be a role model to so many, especially to young women who can look to her and see that regardless of who they love, they can be beautiful, intelligent, and confident in their own skin.”