Jon Penton-Robicheaux, the lead plaintiff in a case that challenged Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriages, died May 12 at a New Orleans hospice of liver failure after a battle with bacterial meningitis. He was 39.
He was an unlikely activist who shied away from the spotlight, despite being well-known as a bartender at local gay bars like the Bourbon Pub & Parade and the Golden Lantern.
“Though Jon was a very beloved figure in the gay community, he was low-key. He wasn’t a big publicity person at all. But he is definitely part of history now,” said Frank Perez, a tour guide and chronicler of the city’s gay history.
Even in Penton-Robicheaux’s last days, his court battle paid dividends: His husband, Derek Penton-Robicheaux, was by his side, privy to all aspects of his medical care — rights often denied in the past to same-sex partners who were not considered to be legally “family.”
Jon Robicheaux grew up in Houma, a place where he saw progress for gay people in recent years as the local gay bar moved to a main street, he said in a 2014 interview.
On Lundi Gras 2007, while Robicheaux was working at the Bourbon Pub, he met Derek Penton, a native of Picayune, Mississippi. The two immediately hit it off.
Later that year, Penton, who was then working as a paramedic, convinced his employer to transfer him to New Orleans. After living in the French Quarter, the two moved to the Bywater, where they bought a house together.
In 2012, the two men became engaged and made plans for a wedding in Iowa, where same-sex marriage was legal. To give it a New Orleans sensibility, the wedding party was decked out in Mardi Gras colors, with Penton and Robicheaux in light green, their best men in yellow and bridesmaids in purple.
Once the couple returned to New Orleans, they framed their Iowa marriage certificate and hung it on a wall. But it had no legal meaning in Louisiana, which didn’t recognize same-sex marriages. They realized that they still had none of the rights of married people.
So they filed Robicheaux v. Caldwell, a federal challenge to the Louisiana laws that barred same-sex marriages. They wanted to be recognized as a married couple.
The case became part of a growing nationwide movement for same-sex marriage. In Louisiana, after the couple’s case and a few others were denied by U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans in 2014, the other cases were consolidated into the Robicheaux case. Lawyers for the seven Louisiana same-sex couples then made a consolidated appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Louisiana case, it agreed to hear four same-sex marriage cases from other states. Penton and Robicheaux flew to Washington, D.C., to be on the court steps the day the justices heard arguments in those cases.
The couple celebrated at home in June 2015, when the Supreme Court held 5-4 that state laws barring same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. Though Robicheaux’s case seemed moot at that point, Gov. Bobby Jindal did not order Louisiana state agencies to comply with the federal ruling until July, when Feldman rescinded his earlier judgment.
Once their marriage was legal in Louisiana, Penton and Robicheaux celebrated by combining and hyphenating their names. They also founded a nonprofit called Louisiana Equality Foundation to further their gay-advocacy work.
In addition to his husband, survivors include his mother, Brenda Robicheaux, of Houma; a brother, Jeffrey Robicheaux; and a sister, Beth Robicheaux Canter.
A memorial ceremony was held Thursday in Houma.