Fate. Divine faith. The laws of attraction. Free will. Or a shared calling to achieve a greater good. Whether we believe in supernatural forces or random odds, we speculate over what brings together two people who consider themselves soulmates. HIGHER LOVE, the epic true story of a gay couple’s lifelong struggle to be recognized together as the parents of four multiracial children, draws readers back to this question—a question with no clear answer, but only the beauty of possibility. In its magical telling by Paul Campion and Randy Johnson, two of the plaintiffs in the SCOTUS case that would legalize same-sex marriage, the memoir shows us the higher purpose of the obstacles Paul and Randy tackle as gay dads to build a family and live their dream.
Their incredible story begins in 2012 with Paul’s prostate cancer diagnosis, when the couple is forced to face the grim realities of their relationship and their unconventional family. Randy and Paul are hardworking, tax-paying citizens. They have chosen professions that serve the public—Paul as an educator, Randy a nurse. They have been together for twenty years and have lived quietly to avoid discrimination against themselves and their adopted children: Tevin, Tyler, Mackenzie, and DeSean. Although they married while vacationing in California in 2008, the couple’s marriage was not recognized back home in Kentucky; in fact, the state’s voters had banned same-sex marriage in 2003, and Randy and Paul continued dealing with the same problems and frustrations as they had before—the social persecution of being gay, the difficulties of not being recognized legally as a family, and the financial hardships of being treated as single parents living in the same home. Paul and Randy preferred their private lives. They had worked tediously to blend in and not draw attention to themselves, to live like a normal family. However, the injustices they faced as a gay couple compelled them to take action—in order to be parents, they had to become activists.
As they grapple with Paul’s cancer diagnosis, Randy recalls how their journey as soul mates began at a gay nightclub in Louisville, Kentucky, in the summer of 1991. It was Randy’s first time at a gay bar and a chance encounter for Paul, who was in town visiting his brother. They had been raised good Christian boys in the era of the Moral Majority, when the religious right entered politics and Baptist pulpits across America reverberated with warnings of hellfire and damnation for congregants who voted the wrong way—for example, in favor of special rights for “perverts and negroes.“ For Paul, tension in the church was not as severe, but tension at home was great. Homosexuality was not discussed, and his parents were strictly intolerant of a lifestyle that deviated from their model Catholic home; certain words, such as “liberal” and “free thinker” were deemed evil. The hypocrisy had not destroyed their faith in God, but it had poisoned Randy’s experience in the church and endangered Paul’s relationship with his family. Their circumstances had sent them on separate but equally dangerous downward spirals. As teenagers, they both had been plagued by thoughts of suicide, and their young adult lives were rife with conflict because they had not yet fully embraced their sexuality.
But when their paths crossed under the dizzying swirl of disco lights, it felt like divine intervention. Both knew almost instantly it was love at first sight, and that love blossomed so beautifully that they were blinded to the likelihood of facing hate and intolerance for it. Falling in love meant there would be no obstacles too great or too risky to hurdle. Together they had more power, not only to get over the stumbling blocks, but also to simply stand up for themselves and their love. In their first conversation, they talked about the importance of family and the dream that they shared of becoming parents and having children of their own.
Through the course of Paul’s treatment and surgery, we meet their remarkable children—the twin boys and girl they adopted from birth and the son they took on at age seven from foster care. We see the joy Tevin and Tyler added to Paul and Randy’s lives, how they brought them home from the hospital and began the busy work of parenting—feeding them every few hours, changing their diapers, and comforting them when they were fussy. Although parenthood proved exhausting, they were wildly happy. After fostering the twins for three months, they began the tumultuous process of adoption. Since Kentucky limited joint adoptions to married couples, Randy and Paul had to file for “single-parent” adoptions for each of their four children. At the time of their first adoption, they were living in the small conservative community where Randy grew up, so they decided that Paul should seek custody of Tevin and Tyler. To avoid questions about their relationship and sexual orientation, Paul appeared before the judge while Randy waited in the parking lot, experiencing for the first time a feeling that would persist for years—that he was inadequate, substandard, unworthy of filling a role desperately needed in our society.
Despite the challenges, Randy and Paul were eager to add to their family. With Tevin and Tyler, they learned to shop around for day cares, schools, and pediatricians who would acknowledge them both as parents and treat the boys without regard to race. A few years after the twins were born, they moved into Louisville to escape the racism and bigotry their family faced in rural Kentucky. They knew it would be difficult, but they refused to let their dreams of having a family die. When the twins were eight years old, they adopted a biracial female baby from birth and repeated the process. In the paperwork, Randy was named the legal parent of their daughter Mackenzie. Four years after Mackenzie’s birth, a first-grader at the school where Paul was a counselor asked Paul to adopt him. In 2007, Paul became DeSean’s legal parent.
Although all four adoptions were approved, Paul’s cancer diagnosis makes the couple’s struggle clear: it isn’t just a matter of Paul surviving, but a question of the two of them living. The fact that they are not both recognized as parents proves as troublesome as ever. While Randy worries about being excluded from decisions involving Paul’s treatment, Paul considers a drastic worst-case scenario—what would happen to his children in the event of his death? In coming to terms with the fact that he would not always be there to protect his children from the dangers and the difficulties of the world, he realizes that his father, who has never accepted Paul’s sexual orientation and has refused to acknowledge Randy as Paul’s partner, would be first in line to get custody. He agonizes over leaving behind the beautiful children who have made his life meaningful and proven the existence of a higher love—a love that transcends gender, race, sexual orientation, traditional ideas of family, and all they knew and understood love itself to be. He feels concerned especially for Tyler, a sensitive and eccentric individual. He reflects on Tyler’s early passion for dance and theater, and his progression from a lively, energetic boy to an accomplished young actor and performer. He fears for Tyler as a young black man in a highly polarized, intolerant world.
After a harrowing experience with a bigoted urologist, Paul and Randy begin a search for a new doctor. The experience reminds them of the pain and heartache they felt in those first years while raising their unconventional family. As Paul prepares to undergo a prostatectomy, Randy braces himself to battle a health care system that has the legal right to discriminate against them for being a gay couple. He frets over whether he will be allowed to escort the children in to see “Daddy Paul” after surgery, or whether he himself will be allowed in the recovery room. Although all goes smoothly at the hospital, the couple’s worries and fears are well founded.
So when Paul and Randy are asked to join a lawsuit to challenge Kentucky’s ban on gay marriage in the summer of 2013, they take inventory of their circumstances and reflect on their past struggles. They have spent thousands of dollars a year on health insurance to ensure adequate coverage for everyone in the family. They have sought legal advice and had agreements drawn up to try to protect their children, yet they know their family is still at risk. If one of them becomes disabled, then insurance benefits would only apply to the child or children legally adopted by that parent; if one of them dies, the other would have no rights to the children legally adopted in his partner’s name.
Paul and Randy consider the implications of entering the lawsuit, particularly how it would make their private lives the subject of public scrutiny. In addition to their personal strife, they reflect on the oppression of gay and lesbian youth and the recent surge in LGBT youth suicides. They pray for guidance in their decision and discuss the matter with the kids, who support the move wholeheartedly. Knowing the odds are against them, they decide to join the legal battle primarily because they want to set an example for their children to do the right thing and to stand up for what they believe in. Little did they know, the Kentucky lawsuit would end up being one of six cases from four states heard before the Supreme Court as Obergefell v. Hodges in April, 2015. Two months later, on June 26, 2015, the court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, ending a lifelong struggle for Randy and Paul to be recognized as the two dads God intended them to be.
In the end, we see two ordinary men, an extraordinary love, and a mutual desire for something so utterly simple and categorically American, not even the staunchest, most conservative Supreme Court in the history of the United States can deny them the right to it. HIGHER LOVE is the memorable and moving story of a gay couple who set out to start a family and instead make history. This intimate portrayal of their struggles, their faith, and their indomitable spirit forever redefines what it means to be “the average American family.”