Bittersweet Cake

A Gresham bakery refused to sell this lesbian couple a wedding cake. Now, Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer break their silence.

Rachel Cryer loved Sweet Cakes by Melissa.

She had discovered the Gresham bakery online in 2011 when she went looking for a wedding cake to celebrate her mother's remarriage. The $250 raspberry fantasy cake baked by the store's namesake co-owner, Melissa Klein, was, as Cryer put it, "to die for."

Cryer was in a lesbian relationship with her longtime partner, Laurel Bowman, and she says Klein was aware of that fact. Nonetheless, as Cryer would later recall, Klein encouraged Cryer and Bowman to return to her bakery if they ever decided to get married. Sweet Cakes by Melissa, they recall Klein telling them, would be happy to bake their wedding cake.

In November 2012, Cryer and Bowman decided to hold a civil commitment ceremony, and they took Melissa Klein up on her offer.

What happened next set off a national debate about same-sex marriage, civil rights and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

When Cryer and her mother arrived at the bakery in January 2013, Aaron Klein, Melissa's husband and the bakery's co-owner, refused to sell Cryer a wedding cake because she and her partner were lesbian.

Earlier this month, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), the state's civil rights watchdog, concluded that the Kleins' actions were discriminatory and violated Oregon law. State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian ordered the Kleins to pay $135,000 in damages because of emotional and physical suffering they caused Bowman and Cryer by denying them service.

It seems as if everyone has had their turn weighing in on the debate. Gay rights groups protested outside Sweet Cakes and have used Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer (as they are now known) as symbols to promote the cause of same-sex marriage.

The Kleins closed their bakery in the face of boycotts and became darlings of conservative media, with more than $400,000 raised on their behalf from donors, according to fundraising websites. After the July 2 final order, The Oregonian called BOLI officials "cake crusaders," and conservative magazine The Weekly Standard labeled the fine "excessive" and its logic "specious."

The only people involved who had not granted an interview to the news media about the controversy were Laurel and Rachel Bowman-Cryer.

Until now.

After the state's ruling, Rachel, 32, and Laurel, 31, sat down with WW for their first news media interview. Their story includes cameo appearances by Portland singer Storm Large and conservative radio host Lars Larson.

It also includes accounts of the humiliation the couple experienced, neighbors who turned their backs and strangers who heaped abuse on them after Aaron Klein posted their names, address and phone number on his Facebook page.

The vilification the two endured, however, paled in comparison to the threat that their entanglement with the Kleins might cause them to lose the foster daughters they were in the process of adopting.

The couple may never see the money the state awarded them, but they say their decision to challenge the Kleins was never about money.

Their story begins when they met in 2002 at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, where they were part of the school's speech and debate team.

LOOKING BACK: Rachel Bowman-Cryer (left) and Laurel Bowman-Cryer, in their first news media interview, talk about how they first blamed themselves after the refusal of Sweet Cakes by Melissa co-owner Aaron Klein in January 2013 to sell them a wedding cake because they were lesbians. "I can't stop Rachel from crying. I can't take this back," Laurel recalls feeling. "This is all my fault. If I hadn't asked Rachel to marry me, we wouldn't have been in this situation. Because we wouldn't be looking for a cake."
IMAGE: V. Kapoor

Rachel Bowman-Cryer: When we were in college, Laurel and I were both on the forensics team, and we traveled to New York for a competition. She took everybody up to the roof of our hotel, the Hotel 17 in Manhattan, and proposed to me in front of everybody.

Laurel Bowman-Cryer: I just knew that if I spent the rest of my life with somebody, it was going to be her.

Rachel: We were really young. I'd said yes, but then as soon as we walked out and we were away from people, I was like, "You know I really didn't mean yes, right?"

I hadn't really seen a marriage in my life that had worked. My mom had been in and out of marriages that all failed, and I just always felt like it did more harm than good. I felt like our relationship was so great, why ruin it with marriage?

Laurel: When Rachel and I first met, I didn't understand the politics behind LGBT, and I didn't understand that you couldn't just marry a person that you loved.

After college, Laurel worked in construction and Rachel performed as a musician and poet. They wanted to move somewhere else, and considered Portland.

Rachel: When my dad was alive, we used to watch this show on TV called Rock Star, and there was a contestant on the show, Storm Large. She was our favorite contestant. She always talked about Portland like it was this utopia. So when my dad passed, I wanted to go someplace where we could be more accepted, and Portland just seemed like that place.

In Texas, we definitely faced discrimination—general discrimination and specific acts like people throwing bottles at us when we were walking down the street, screaming, "You dyke!"

Laurel: Having the hospital ban me from seeing her.

Rachel: After my father passed away, I became sick with typhus. I went to the hospital, and they admitted me, and while I was in the hospital, they wouldn't allow Laurel to come and see me.

Laurel: Because we were gay.

Rachel: And then the doctors suggested that I would not be able to heal around her, and I should separate myself from her.

Laurel: From the gay lifestyle. 

The couple moved to Portland in 2009, and soon members of Rachel's family followed. 

Rachel: My mother and my brother moved out here after we moved. We told them this was going to be more accepting for my brother, who's also gay and at the time was in high school and was having problems with being bullied in Texas.

Mom met a man, and they decided to get married. I did all of their wedding planning. Part of that was finding a place to purchase a cake for their wedding. I found Sweet Cakes by Melissa online, set up an appointment, and the three of us—my mom, Laurel and I—went to a cake-tasting and eventually purchased a cake from them.

It was beautiful, it tasted fabulous. It was the most impressive thing about my mom's wedding.

Rachel and Laurel say Melissa Klein knew they were a lesbian couple, but nonetheless invited them back to her bakery.

Laurel: Actually [Melissa Klein] said, "Have you thought about getting married?" and Rachel said, "Oh no, I'm never getting married." And we just made the joke about it, and she said, "Well, if you decide to, come back." And that was the last thing we really said about it.

(Melissa Klein, through her attorney, disputes the claim that she invited Rachel and Laurel back as customers for their own wedding: "There was never any discussion of my designing a cake for Rachel and Laurel's future wedding. I simply did not say what they claim I said.")

A close friend of Laurel's died in 2011, leaving two small children, both of whom have special needs. That fall, Rachel and Laurel became the children's foster parents and soon decided to adopt them. The decision prompted Rachel in 2012 to reconsider her view on marriage.

Rachel: I never wanted to have children, but when the children were placed with us, we had the option to help these kids that I already loved so much. And they needed us so much, and they'd been through so much, I felt like they needed the stability of knowing that we were committed both to each other and to them.

Laurel had repeatedly asked me, it was sort of like a joke every year. She would go, "Oh, we're going to get married this year?"

I came home from work one night, and Laurel was in bed, and I just kind of got in the bed and I said, "Hey, I think we need to do that thing that you've been talking about."

She jumps up out of the bed and starts jumping around the room. She's so excited, and she's like, "We're going to Mount St. Helens! I'm so excited!"

And I was like, "No, that was not exactly the thing we talked about."

Laurel: I thought we were going to go see the volcano.

Rachel: When I came out to my mom, she mourned for a long time that she would never be able to plan a wedding with me, see me get married and have kids. So it was very bonding for us to plan our wedding together, and we really bonded over that cake. So when Laurel and I told my mother we were going to get married, the first thing we all said was, "I know where we're going for the cake."

Same-sex marriage was illegal in Oregon at the time—the ban wasn't struck down until May 19, 2014. Rachel and Laurel instead chose a civil commitment ceremony.

Laurel: Rachel and her mother went to a bridal expo and had run into Melissa.

Rachel: When we saw her at the bridal expo, I already knew that I was going to go to her for our cake. So I just walked up to her: "Hey, do you remember? You made my mother's wedding cake. I know we talked about how we would never get married, but Laurel and I finally decided that we're going to get married, and we don't want anybody else to make our cake except you." Melissa didn't seem put off by it at all.

Laurel: They came home just so happy. I've never seen Rachel and her mom that exuberant.

Rachel and Laurel made an appointment to meet with Melissa Klein for a tasting at Sweet Cakes by Melissa on Jan. 17, 2013. (Klein says she saw Rachel and her mother at the bridal show but did not remember them.) Laurel couldn't go to the cake-tasting appointment, so Rachel and her mother went. 

Rachel: We get there and see Mr. Klein behind the counter. We had never met him before and never had any interaction with him. We were a little put off that it was him and not her, just because we had such a rapport with Melissa.

The first thing he says is, "To get started, we need to get the bride and groom's name." And I just kind of giggled a little, and I think maybe she didn't tell him and he didn't know. I was like, "Oh, it's two brides." And he put his clipboard down and he just said, "Well, I'm sorry, but we don't do same-sex weddings here."

I kind of laughed and said, "Are you kidding?" I really thought he was joking with me, like just trying to give me a jab or something, and he was like, "No, we don't do same-sex weddings." And I just sat there kind of stunned.

My mom immediately stood up and grabbed her purse and started kind of going at him with, "Why didn't you tell us this before?" And, "If you had told us this before we bought our cake from you previously, we would have never purchased from you."

She just kind of looked at me and said: "Get up, Rachel, let's go. We will find someone who will make you a cake." And we got up and walked out. I was crying already. I was just in tears as I'm just sitting there stunned.

I was just humiliated that this happened in front of my mom, whom I spent all these years trying to convince that we deserved equal accommodation, and we deserve rights, and we deserve to be able to get married. I was crying and she was trying to console me and say, "Don't worry, we will find somebody that will make you a beautiful cake."

We pulled out of the parking lot, and we got to the light, and as we're sitting there, she looks over at me and she's like: "I can't do it, Rachel. I have to go back."

My mom went back inside and she told him, "You know I used to believe just like you believe, but then God blessed me with not one but two gay children and it changed my truth."

He supposedly quoted Leviticus to her, and in her mind what she heard from that was, "My children are an abomination." My mom being the God-fearing Southern Baptist Christian that she is, it was a very hurtful and hateful thing to hear someone say about your children.

The passage Aaron Klein quoted was Leviticus 18:22: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."

Laurel: They got home and Rachel immediately went up the stairs, and I could tell something was wrong. Rachel was just in a ball crying, and her mom told me what happened. I just got angry. I decided I was going to write a review. I was going to warn other gay people: "Don't go to this establishment." So I pulled out my little phone with this tiny little screen and I typed in something to Google. I thought I was leaving a comment for the Better Business Bureau, and I didn't think much of it. It turned out to be an Oregon Department of Justice complaint. I didn't know you could do something like that on a phone. I just thought it was a comment.

Rachel: I didn't even know about that happening.

Laurel: I didn't tell her. I thought I was just leaving  a comment. 

Laurel's filing went to the state DOJ's office that handles consumer complaints. On Jan. 28, 2013, the DOJ forwarded a copy of the complaint to the Kleins.

Rachel: We didn't know anything about the complaint until I received a phone call at home from Lars Larson, and he was calling me to see if I had any comment. He had Mr. Klein on his radio show.

Laurel: I don't know how he got our phone numbers.

Rachel: He said, "I had Mr. Klein on the show today and wanted to know if you had any comment about your complaint against them?" And I was immediately dumbfounded. I was like, "I don't know what you're talking about."

Laurel: When Lars Larson called, I said, "I think we need a lawyer." We called the Oregon [State] Bar looking for help.

Aaron Klein had posted a copy of Laurel's complaint on his Facebook page. The complaint included Rachel and Laurel's home address and phone number. Rachel and Laurel received hundreds of angry and threatening messages in response to Klein's post, including death threats. Klein later testified he was unaware that the women's personal information was on the complaint when he posted it. The BOLI decision found his denial was not credible.

Laurel:  Our neighbors had dropped off notes on our doorstep saying they don't agree with what we are doing to this good, decent Christian family.

Rachel: You couldn't possibly feel less safe in that situation.

Laurel: Your own neighbors are against you, and they've known you for years.

Rachel: At the same time, I find out from people on the Internet sending me messages that our address and phone number were published on Mr. Klein's Facebook page.

Laurel: Even our email addresses—everything.

Rachel: And to know that there's this other element that somebody actually wanted to kill us. They didn't know where to find us, but when he put our information out there, suddenly this person knew how to find us.

Laurel: We had the FBI at our house at one point.

Rachel and Laurel left their home with the children to stay with Rachel's mother in Washington. They feared the publicity about their case would hurt their efforts to adopt their foster children.

Laurel: We just thought: "Let's lay low. We're going to protect our daughters, and eventually this is going to blow over. It's gotta blow over."

Rachel: But it didn't blow over. They just kept talking about it.

Laurel: The detractors, the Kleins' supporters, the Kleins themselves—they kept saying that we were going to sue them, that we were targeting them. We are sitting at home going, "We haven't done anything to you, just leave us alone."

After a few weeks, the state DOJ dropped the consumer complaint. The couple held their commitment ceremony in June 2013, and the state soon affirmed their right to adopt the children. On Aug. 8, 2013, after Aaron Klein denied them service, Rachel filed a formal complaint with the BOLI.

Rachel: We talked about it. We went back and forth. We talked to our family and our friends. We just ultimately came to the decision that it wasn't just going to go away and that we needed to…

Laurel: Defend ourselves and stop being bullied.

Rachel: And show our children that you're going to face a lot of adversity in life, but you have to stand up for yourself and you have to stand up for what you believe in.

It is our desire that nobody in Oregon ever has to go through what we went through.

Laurel: Or the country.

FROSTED: Aaron and Melissa Klein (far left) told the Family Research Council Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., in September 2014 they closed their bakery after they faced boycotts following Aaron Klein's refusal to serve Rachel Cryer. "[My wife] has a God-given talent to create a work of art to celebrate a union between two people," Klein said. "And to use that in a manner, that would be in the face of what the Bible says it should be, I just couldn't in good conscience agree to do it."
IMAGE: Ron Walters/Light Productions

It took nearly two years of BOLI hearings, testimony and deliberations before the state issued its final order against the Kleins.

Rachel: We didn't have a choice in how this was prosecuted. We didn't have a choice in the fine. If we had been given the option, we probably would have said: "Just apologize. Just say you're sorry and go away."

Laurel: Why would they not tell us in one of the emails, before ever allowing us to come into the shop and be humiliated like that?

Rachel: That was initially the thing we were kind of taken aback by: "You had opportunities to tell us. Why not?"

Laurel: People don't realize that we never wanted this to happen—that we're not asking for anything. We've never asked for a penny from anybody.

The Kleins have been out there begging for money to pay the fine. And they still continue to ask for money, and say that they're not going to pay the fine because they don't want the money to go to us.

Rachel: The money doesn't have anything to do with anything as far as we're concerned.

People might feel more sympathy for us if somebody hit me rather than just denying me a cake. But the hurt, whether it's physical or emotional, is the same. We are treated like second-class citizens. That's whether you want to deny me something or walk up and hit me just because I was born gay.

People say, "Oh, it's just a cake, it's just a wedding." That's the part that they're not seeing, that this was not just a wedding to us. It was more than that.

For us, the marriage and the wedding in particular was about bringing together our families—being able to bring together these families, to commit to raising these kids, the children, together as one family. 

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