John Schenck*, the founder of Arkansas’s longest running Pride parade and a longtime champion of equal rights for LGBT people, has died. The grief friends are sharing on his Facebook page gives a hint at his influence in the community. His partner and husband of almost 41 years, Robert Loyd, died just a little less than a year ago.
Schenck grew up in Long Island, N.Y., and worked the bar during the infamous Stonewall Inn riots, which helped launch the LGBT rights movement. He later became a hairdresser in New York. He and Loyd met on a Palm Beach, Fla. dance floor. “The deal was, we’d live together for six months,” Schenck said in an interview with the Arkansas Times in 2015. “At the end of six months, if [Loyd] wanted to stay, great. … This past January was 40 years.”
The couple moved to Arkansas in 1978 to take care of Loyd’s ailing mother and eventually made their way to Conway, where they purchased a large Victorian house that served as their home and hair salon and became known as the Pink House.
From David Koon’s story on the couple last year:
With the house a dreary brown, Loyd hoped to brighten it up by painting the porch pale lavender. Loyd said he was on top of a ladder painting when a woman approached to voice her disapproval.
“Some woman came up and said, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing to the house,’ ” Loyd recalled. “I said, ‘I hate your fucking dress. Get the fuck out of my yard. You don’t like this? Come back tomorrow. It’ll be yellow with purple polka dots.’ ” As a further poke in the eye of locals who disapproved, the color of the porch was changed from lavender to pale pink. As the years wore on, the pink would darken and spread until it covered the whole house, transforming just another house on the corner into the flamingo-colored Conway landmark it is today.
Their choice in paint notwithstanding, Loyd said that he and Schenck were focused on their business and almost entirely nonpolitical for the next 17 years, quietly taking in scores of kids tossed out of their homes for being gay, but keeping as low a profile as one can when living in a giant pink house in Conway. Even so, Loyd and Schenck said they often didn’t use their porch swing or benches in the yard because of passing drivers shouting “faggot” and “queer.”
During the funeral of a former Conway mayor at a nearby church in January 2003, however, Loyd confronted a police officer about people parking in their driveway, later snapping a photo of the officer before rushing back into the house. “They kicked the door in,” Loyd said. “Knocked the frame from its hinges.”
Loyd and Schenck were placed in handcuffs, dragged from the house, and put face down on the hood of a car as mourners left the funeral. “They were all walking by, tittering and laughing,” Loyd said. Schenck was detained for six hours, while Loyd was held for nine. That, and later run-ins with the police that they saw as motivated by homophobia, turned them into warriors for the cause of LGBT rights, they said.
“I am a German,” Loyd said. “I came from Germany with my family to get away from Nazi treatment, and moved into a nest of them. I am not a quitter. I am not a coward. I didn’t say anything for 30 years. I didn’t do anything. I never stood up for myself or anybody else.” When they kicked in his door, Loyd said, that changed. After seeing Gov. Mike Huckabee speaking out against gay rights, Loyd and Schenck were angry enough to step out of the shadows, appearing on local TV stations to publicly support gay marriage. They almost immediately paid the price.
“As soon as we came out on TV asking for the same rights you have to get married,” Schenck said, “I lost about half of my clients, and he lost about two-thirds.” Many, however, sent Schenck and Loyd thanks for their bravery and willingness to speak up for what was right.
It was a shout that became a revolution in Conway, with Loyd and Schenck organizing the first Conway pride parade in 2004, attended by 100 marchers and over 1,000 protestors, an event that was marred by someone spreading six tons of cow manure along the parade route. Undeterred, they’ve continued the annual parade, held rallies and mass marriage ceremonies, and helped keep the cause of LGBT rights in the public eye.
Loyd and Schenck were legally married in Canada in 2004 and later joined as plaintiffs Wright v. Arkansas, the lawsuit that challenged Arkansas’s same-sex marriage ban. After Circuit Judge Chris Piazza agreed with plaintiffs that the law was unconstitutional in May 2014, several counties in Arkansas, including Pulaski County, issued marriage licenses for a brief window. Loyd and Schenck were on hand to support other LGBT couples that day, but said they would wait to be married in Arkansas until their home Faulkner County issued licenses. Wright v. Arkansas later stalled at the Arkansas Supreme Court. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges more than a year later, Loyd and Schenck may have been the first couple in the state to get a marriage license.
A GoFundMe page has been created to raise money for Schenck’s funeral expenses.
*Schenck’s name was initially misspelled in this post.