‘Together forever’: Idaho veteran who fought to be buried with her wife dies at 81
Nicole Blanchard, Idaho Statesman
Published at | Updated at
BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Madelynn “Lee” Taylor knew she wanted to be laid to rest with her wife. The Idaho woman felt so strongly that she took her convictions with her to court in 2014, fighting Idaho officials to ensure that her spouse, Jean Mixner, could share her columbarium vault at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery in Boise.
Taylor, a Navy veteran and longtime activist for LGBTQ rights in Idaho, died April 21. She was 81.
Friends and family say it’s bittersweet to lose Taylor, described as a “vibrant” woman who always had a smile. Still, they take comfort in knowing that she will soon join Mixner, who died in 2012, in the stone vault at the cemetery bearing the inscription “together forever.”
VETERAN CALLED A ‘PROBLEM SOLVER’
Taylor was born on Jan. 11, 1940, in Bell Gardens, California. The family soon moved to the Ozarks, where Taylor, the third-oldest of seven children, took charge in her teenage years. Younger sister Karen Hicks told the Statesman that Taylor ran things, from plowing fields to milking cattle and repairing the barn.
“She was always a problem solver,” Hicks said. “If there’s a will, there’s a way with her.”
The family later returned to California, where Taylor graduated from high school. She started college at California State University, San Bernardino, studying medical science. When her parents welcomed a new baby, Taylor opted to join the U.S. Navy to pay for her education. Hicks said Taylor worked in technical positions, at times being part of projects affiliated with the nation’s early space programs. She served for six years and earned the rank of petty officer third class.
“(Lee) said they tried to do a dishonorable discharge because they found out she was gay,” said Judy Cross, a longtime friend of Taylor’s. “She fought it and showed that she had very honorable behavior throughout her whole time and ended up having an honorable discharge.”
Taylor moved to Nampa in 1971 after visiting Hicks and falling in love with the area. Hicks recalled that one day during her visit, Taylor went to the store and didn’t return right away.
“I thought she was lost,” Hicks said. “She came back … and said, ‘I bought a farm.’ ”
Hicks warned her sister, then working at Hewlett-Packard in Sunnyvale, California, that it might be difficult to find work in the Treasure Valley. Taylor didn’t balk. She found a job as a computer technician at Qwest, and later retired and raised goats on her farm. She also volunteered as a paramedic in Kuna.
Cross, a deacon at Boise’s Liberating Spirit Metropolitan Community Church, which Taylor helped found, said Taylor had encountered “a lot of harassment and difficulty” in the Navy as a lesbian. At church, she tried to create a welcoming environment for LGBTQ members who’d had similar experiences.
“She was one of those people that was … just an amazing teacher and mentor, and would take in people who’d been really battered and hurt by other churches because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Cross said. “She’d take them under her wing and let them know they were just fine and they were loved and didn’t have any reason to be self-deprecating.”
Hicks and Cross said Taylor was an active church member, hosting Bible studies and teaching new church members, whom she called “baby Christians.”
Taylor also participated in numerous “Add the Words” protests at the Idaho State Capitol Building, urging lawmakers to add the words “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to the Idaho Human Rights Act.
TAYLOR FOUGHT FOR LGBTQ RIGHTS
Taylor and Mixner met online in the mid-1990s. They married in a religious ceremony in Oregon in 1995 and held a legal marriage ceremony in California in 2008, when the state briefly issued same-sex marriage licenses before a five-year hiatus due to the passage of Proposition 8. Together they spent time traveling across the country via RV, taking temporary jobs as RV park managers or with parks services.
They were living together in Arizona in 2012 when Mixner died. Taylor decided to return to Idaho, taking Mixner’s ashes with her. She contacted the Idaho Veterans Cemetery to reserve a columbarium vault for herself, where she planned to also place Mixner’s ashes. Instead, she was told that Mixner could not be buried alongside her; Idaho did not recognize their same-sex marriage.
“She was at church the next Sunday and we were talking,” Cross said. “She said, ‘I just don’t know what to do.’ I suggested, ‘Why don’t you write a letter to the editor?’ (Several of us) all got together and helped.”
Taylor’s letter ran in the Dec. 29, 2013, issue of the Idaho Statesman:
“I am 74 years old and a U.S. Navy veteran who served six honorable years. I received two Letters of Commendation, National Defense Medal, Cold War Victory Medal, and a Good Conduct Medal. I have been an Idaho resident since 1972. I am distressed because I have been denied to have my wife buried with me in the Idaho Veterans Cemetery. This is a benefit afforded all veterans to have our spouses buried beside us.
“My wife passed away recently and I have been holding her ashes so we could be buried together, a pact we have cherished for many years. We were together since March 1995, and legally married in California in September 2008.
“I am overcome with disappointment, feeling my contribution to my country and state are not valued or acknowledged. I feel this is blatant discrimination and bigotry. It is time the state of Idaho stops discriminating against its veterans who happen to be gay or lesbian. We could be buried together in Washington, in the National Cemetery, but I am an Idahoan and have family here. I simply cannot see how a couple of old lesbians in the cemetery could be hurting anyone!”
She quickly received an outpouring of support from other veterans, Cross said, some of whom offered their own places at the Veterans Cemetery for Mixner. Through the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Taylor was introduced to Deborah Ferguson and Craig Durham, Boise attorneys who were already fighting to overturn Idaho’s ban on gay marriage.
“It was a real honor to represent her, and it was a pleasure,” Ferguson told the Statesman. “It happened in the midst of the marriage case, so both (Craig Durham) and I were extremely busy, but we saw this as an important case and a wrong that really needed to be righted.”
They sued the administrator of the Idaho Division of Veterans Services on July 7, 2014.
Hicks said she asked Taylor early on whether she may have bitten off more than she could chew.
“She said, ‘No, when you feel strongly enough about something, you get it done,’ ” Hicks said.
As the marriage equality case proceeded in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Mixner’s remains were interred at the Veterans Cemetery on Oct. 28, 2014. James Earp, director of the cemetery, said that was a result of a change to Idaho’s marriage laws. The next day, David Brasuell, the Veterans Services administrator, moved to dismiss Taylor’s lawsuit on the grounds that Mixner had been allowed to be interred with Taylor.
Still, Taylor and her lawyers pressed on. They wanted legal assurance that state officials would not try to walk back that decision. With the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision upholding marriage equality, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush ruled on July 9, 2015, that not only could Taylor and Mixner be interred together, but that right was extended to any Idaho veteran.
“Upon her death, Ms. Taylor shall be interred with her deceased spouse, Ms. Mixner, at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery. Moreover, the State of Idaho, its political subdivisions, and its officers, employees, and agents, are enjoined from enforcing any constitutional provision, statute, regulation, or policy preventing qualified same-sex couples from being buried or interred together at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery which, if the spouses were not of the same sex, would be otherwise valid under the laws of the state,” Bush wrote.
Cross said the decision was “exhilarating.”
“She never sought credit for herself,” Cross said. “She just wanted to hold fast to what she knew was right.”
LOVED ONES WILL REMEMBER HER LEGACY
Hicks said her sister was a true patriot who loved her country and Idaho. Taylor was offered the opportunity to seek interment at Arlington National Cemetery, but Hicks said it was important to Taylor that she be laid to rest in her home.
Thanks to Taylor’s tenacity and legal success, Hicks said, other Idaho veterans won’t face the same struggle.
“I think people look up to her,” Hicks said. “She truly believed not only she would benefit (from the lawsuit), but others would, too. She knew a lot was at stake.”
At the time of her death, Taylor was living at Arbor Valley of Cascadia, a Boise nursing home, and loved socializing with other residents. Hicks said Taylor was “always go, go, go,” even in her final days.
The family is still waiting for Taylor to be cremated and does not yet have a date when they’ll place her cremains next to Mixner’s at the Veterans Cemetery. A public memorial for Taylor is planned for 3 p.m. Saturday at the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise.
Friends and family said they look forward to celebrating her life.
“It’s sad, Lee’s passing, but it’s kind of come full circle because before she died, she knew and found comfort in the fact that she and Jean would be interred together,” Ferguson said.