By Connie Wardman
As we start to think about Valentine’s Day, we’re always partial to stories where sports are involved in a couple’s love story. And the story of Karen Bailey and Nelda Majors certainly fits. They have absolutely come a long way together – they’ve gone from college girls in a closeted lesbian relationship involved in softball to the steps of U.S. Supreme Court to speak to the gathered crowd during a marriage equality rally this past March. Now in their 70s, they’ve been together for 55 years – better than many heterosexual couples.
In 1957 Nelda was 19, a sophomore physical education major at Sam Houston State College and a crack softball player. Karen was 18, a freshman at the same college thinking about a major in elementary education and/or business when they met and became best friends. While Nelda knew she was gay, Karen didn’t. In fact, she was in a relationship with a soldier when she met Nelda.
After six months of deepening friendship, when they returned to school following spring break they declared their love for one another and became a couple. But remember that this was Texas in the 1950s. According to Nelda, “It was a time that you just did not admit that you were gay unless you had close gay friends. You could even be arrested; you could lose your job or your family, or even lose a lot of your straight friends for that matter.”
Nelda had an uncle who coached a little league team in Arkansas, and during summer visits, she’d get to play with the boys on her uncle’s team and get extra coaching from him. A natural athlete from the start, she only got better with age and practice. And by the time she turned 14 she had moved from playing center field to pitching and was playing with older women players.
This was prior to Title IX so softball wasn’t part of the college program. Instead, the softball team in Houston was sponsored by a local company and the team traveled all over the country playing fast pitch softball. Because there was no competition for them in Houston, the women actually played in a men’s league.
Since Karen wasn’t a player, she sat in the bleachers to cheer Nelda on. That was when she heard some of the men’s wives talking about those “queers.” It truly angered and upset her and she told Nelda she should quit softball to get away from such attacks … to which Nelda replied, “Don’t make me make a choice.”
Karen got the message loud and clear and instead, she chose to become very involved with the softball team as the scorekeeper, even traveling with the team. This meant she no longer had to sit in the stands and she loved being able to say that by the end of the season the men’s wives were cheering for the “queers” (who just happened to beat the men).
After two years at Sam Houston, both women transferred to the University of Houston where Nelda ran into homophobia from the head of the physical education department. She was told that if she wanted to stay in this major, she had to drop softball – there were no softball players (read that as gays or queers) in her department; if Nelda wanted to play softball then she needed to switch majors. Although the woman offered her time to decide, Nelda immediately changed her major to physical therapy. She discovered later that the woman was, herself, a lesbian.
The change in major turned out well for both women. Nelda started a long and successful career in physical therapy, first as a therapist in a local hospital, then a local clinic and finally into overseeing a staff of therapists with an international group. After 13 years working at an oil company as an executive assistant, Karen joined Nelda in the physical therapy clinics and handled the business end of the practice.
After the women retired, Karen’s great grand niece Sharla, now 21, came to live with them at the age of four. Six years later they were given custody of Sharla’s half-sister Marissa. Now 15, Marissa was only three when she came to live with them.
Karen and Nelda have built a life together, a home, a successful business and raised two wonderful girls over the last 55 years. But with same-sex marriage still not legal in Arizona, if anything should happen to Karen, Nelda would have no legal rights for the girls she has helped raise. “It is so harmful to our girls.” Nelda said, “Being able to marry in Arizona would legally solidify our rights as a family.” This is the one thing that leaves them with a lot of uncertainty.
Both women are thrilled about the freedom that coming out of the closet has given them to speak up on important issues of the day. Their concerns over their girls’ future prompted them to travel to Washington, D.C. in March to speak about it to the crowd at a marriage equality rally during the DOMA hearings and to share their love story.
Occasionally they’re sorry they didn’t come out sooner but they also recognize that it was a very different world back then, something that makes their freedom today all the more precious. They are no longer on a softball team. Instead, they’re on a new team today that supports equality for all … team human race.