The Courage and Torment of the Lesbian Couple Who Took on That Anti-Gay Oregon Bakery

It’s not just about a cake.

Photo by Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Throughout the controversy over the Oregon bakery that got fined for refusing to serve a lesbian couple, one viewpoint has been conspicuously absent: that of the women themselves. Since their sudden rise to fame, Aaron and Melissa Klein, the anti-gay owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, have been making the rounds at conservative religious events like the Family Research Council Values Voter Summit. (They also raked in more than $400,000 through a fundraising campaign, though they refuse to pay any fines.) But for years, Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer chose note to speak publicly about the discriminatory experience.

That changed on Wednesday, when Willamette Week published the Bowman-Cryers’ very first interview. The exchange is worth reading in its entirety. But I’ll note a few things that stood out to this reluctant chronicler of the cake wars.

1. Rachel and Laurel faced horrible, constant discrimination before moving to Oregon.

The couple met in Texas and lived there for seven years. During that time, they faced terrible anti-gay discrimination. Passers-by would throw bottles at them and call them dykes. When Rachel got sick with typhus, the hospital refused to let Laurel see her. Rachel’s doctor suggested she should leave Laurel because engaging in “the gay lifestyle” might prevent her from healing. Soon after that, they moved to Oregon to escape homophobia.

2. Melissa Klein was allegedly eager to bake their cake—but her husband objected.

Rachel first patronized Sweet Cakes to get a wedding cake for her mother. Melissa knew Rachel was a lesbian but still told her to “come back” if she ever got married. Later, Rachel ran into Melissa at a bridal expo and told her she would come in soon to pick a cake—the couple had decided to hold a commitment ceremony. (At that point, same-sex marriage remained illegal in Oregon.) But when Rachel and her mom went to Sweet Cakes, it was Aaron Klein who greeted them, and he informed them that “we don’t do same-sex weddings.” He also quoted Leviticus 18:22: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” (The Kleins dispute this account.)

3. The Kleins published Rachel and Laurel’s personal information online, leading to hate mail and harassment.*

When the Oregon Department of Justice forwarded the couple’s discrimination complaint to the Kleins, Aaron Klein posted it on his Facebook page—including their personal information. Rachel and Laurel then received hundreds of angry letters and emails, including death threats. At one point, the FBI got involved. (Klein later said he hadn’t realized he’d published the couple’s personal information. The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries found this claim “not credible.”)

4. Rachel and Laurel fled their home out of fear for the safety of their children.

When a close friend of Laurel’s died in 2011, Rachel and Laurel fostered—then adopted—her two children with special needs. As the deluge of hate mail began pouring in, the couple fled Oregon to stay with Rachel’s mother in Washington state. At that point, they were also in the process of formally adopting the children and feared all the negative attention might derail the process.

5. The Bowman-Cryer family really did suffer immensely.

Much of the conservative outcry over the Sweet Cakes decision has focused on the “outrageous” fine of $135,000 levied against the Kleins. The Weekly Standard questioned the notion that Rachel and Laurel might deserve damages, calling their claims of emotional distress “fishy.” Yet it’s clear that the Kleins really did cause Rachel, Laurel, and their two daughters to suffer—not only by denying them service, but also by enabling the public to inundate them with hateful threats. When the couple talks about the awful, unceasing discrimination they faced because of the Kleins’ actions, $135,000 starts to sound like a pretty reasonable sum.

*Correction, July 23This post originally misstated that the Kleins published Rachel and Melissa’s personal information. Melissa is one of the Kleins. The Kleins published Rachel and Laurel’s information.