Last winter, close to four thousand gay and lesbian couples exchanged wedding vows beneath the dome of San Francisco’s City Hall. Six months later, the state Supreme Court declared the marriages “void and of no legal effect.”
Try telling that to the people who were there.
Six very different East Bay couples agreed to tell us about their lives since that remarkable Valentine’s Day weekend, and their legal and emotional roller-coaster ride as the first people in American history to be married, and then involuntarily unmarried by the courts. They are ordinary people living in extraordinary times. Times in which bureaucracies and politicians debate how and whether to recognize their bonds – and in which a lack of recognition brings serious consequences.
Some of their legal conundrums could be clarified in January, when state bill AB205, now under challenge in the courts, is slated to take effect. The new law would give California domestic partners the same rights as married straight couples, including rights to child custody, child support, and extended family leave. But gay couples are still excluded from the 1,049 specific rights granted to legally married couples by the federal government, which controls Social Security, Medicare, inheritance rights, and immigration, among other things.
With voters in eleven states weighing in next month on proposed state amendments banning same-sex marriage – Louisiana and Missouri have already passed such prohibitions – and President Bush calling for a federal constitutional amendment, the future of rights and recognition for gay unions is anything but certain.
In the meantime, twelve complicated East Bay lives roll forward.
Johnny & William
Johnny Symons, 38, documentary filmmaker
William Rogers, 39, senior programs director
Kids: Zachary, 5, and Kenyon, 3.
Years Together: 11
The Oakland couple adopted their sons, biological brothers, from California’s foster care system. Although they’d registered as domestic partners, between caring for two children and being, as Johnny puts it, “kind of ceremony-averse,” they had never held a public celebration of their union.
Johnny: Suddenly one day the opportunity presents itself to get married and it was this now or never thing, and we just jumped at the chance. I started frantically calling City Hall — are you guys really issuing same-sex marriage licenses today? What’s the procedure? All the lines were jammed, there was no information available. So I said, what the hell. I know they close the doors at four o’clock, it’s Friday, it’s a three-day weekend — chances are really good the court is going to slam the door on this when the doors open Tuesday morning. If we’re ever going to do this, this is our little window of opportunity.
William: I was at work and Johnny called me up and he says, “Hey, will you marry me?” And I said, “You know what — I’m on the other line, let me call you back.” Then I called him back and I’m like, “Now, what is this?”
Johnny:[joking] By then I’d asked someone else.
William: I didn’t take it very seriously because I felt like, look, we had been together for eleven years, we own a house, we have two children. I drive a minivan for God’s sake! It didn’t feel like there was anything else I could do that would make me feel like we were a more legitimate family. At that moment I felt like it was more of a political act. It was an important thing to do, to show up to this event. So we grabbed the kids out of school, we zipped across the bridge. We go up to City Hall and we were in line for four and a half hours.
Johnny: I think we had brought diapers with us, thank God, but that was about it. It was so exciting to be there that particular day. There were cameras everywhere, and you could see people jubilantly emerging from the recorder’s office and going up to have their ceremonies under the rotunda. The energy there was just so incredible. So suddenly we’re standing there in the rotunda and the kids are around us and some of our friends are there and we’re repeating these vows. The whole thing had been such a whirlwind and so exhausting and frantic, but it all fell away in that moment. We were holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes and repeating these vows, and it was intense.
William: It was intense. It was weird because up until that point I’d been like, this is an important political statement, blah blah blah. It wasn’t until I said the vows that I just felt this rush of tears. It became personal at that point. It was no longer political. It just became real — about us and our family. I’ve always had the attitude of like, “fuck you, you don’t have to legitimize my relationship — I’ll have my relationship, I’ll have my children, and I will live my life.” But once I got married, it was this amazing feeling of belonging in a way that I never thought I could belong to the larger culture. My whole life has been in some ways about not quite fitting into the larger culture, whether it’s racially, or my family structure. I’m biracial, half white and half black — I lived in the African-American community almost my entire life, and I was always really clear that my mother’s white parents did not approve of my parents’ relationship. I often walk a tenuous line between society’s perceptions of black and white in the same way I now walk that line about what makes a family.
How has marriage affected your kids?
William:Shortly after we got married, we had a play date with one of Zach’s friends who said, “I heard you got married.” We said, “Yeah, we got married, do you want to say something about that?’ And this little boy who was five or six said, “You’re two boys!” He said it in this surly sort of disgusted way. And I looked over at Zach and his shoulders sort of shrunk a little bit and his head sort of went down.
I turned to this little boy and I said, “That’s right, we are married just like your mom and dad are married.” And I could see out of the corner of my eye Zach’s shoulders, he was sort of sitting up straight and he was like, “Yeah!” For the first time I realized that our children deserve to have their parents be married if that’s what their parents choose.
Johnny: It makes a huge difference to them.
William: Because ultimately, if we are put on the fringe, so are our children.
What about daily life? Has that changed?
Johnny: I’ve really gotten into using the word “husband.” I think that’s an extremely socially empowering word. Now we can claim it, and people can’t really say no. Like, our insurance is based on the idea that we are two unmarried male drivers under forty. That’s not us, we’re married! So I called up the insurance company and talked to the agent and she took $250 off of our policy.
William: We had been paying $250 extra a year for the last eleven years. That’s almost $3,000! How many other ways are we made to pay more because we’re not benefiting from the advantages of marriage? Like when we rent a car, our relationship is not recognized, therefore we have to pay money for an additional driver. Or we don’t get the family rate for AAA. All these little ways that we’re reminded constantly that our family is not recognized. If one of us were to die, what happens then? Johnny is not eligible for my Social Security. I’m not eligible for Johnny’s. That’s wrong, because if one of us were to die, one of us is going to be a single parent and we’re going to need as much assistance as possible. To deny us that because we happen to be two men instead of a man and a woman is outrageous.
Johnny: We feel that we’re pioneers in terms of gay dads. Alameda County has a really high concentration of gay dads — I’m talking about out gay men who have made a conscious decision to form families together without women as primary caregivers in their children’s lives. That’s a pretty new phenomenon — when you said “gay dads” twenty years ago, you were really talking about guys who had been straight and married and had gotten divorced and were still parenting.
William: Or it was gay men having children with lesbians and doing some of the coparenting. People are not used to men parenting, period. Much less two men being together and then being parents. At Zach’s school, I went in one day to pick him up and like five kids come running up to me like, “Does Zachary have a mom?’ And I smiled and I said, “You know, Zachary is very lucky, he has two dads.’ So the kids were like, “I want two dads!” A couple of months later, they started to press a little bit more. They were like, “How was he born?” So then we talked about adoption. But a lot of the kids’ parents were like, “I didn’t know what to say to my child.” They get sort of thrown off by the two-dad thing. We wound up writing this letter to the school basically saying, look, it’s adoption. Every adopted kid’s story is similar: They grew in a woman’s tummy and then they came to live with another family. It seems like if marriage for gay men and lesbians were socially sanctioned, we would have gone through a lot of this already. It really does add an additional burden to our kids as well, because kids are asking questions and we have to help them figure out how to explain it. And then when you have to explain that we can’t even be married, in a social way, it sort of knocks the legitimacy of our relationship down a notch.
Isobel & Angela
Isobel White, 36, senior policy associate
Angela Dawn White, 33, human resources analyst, photographer
Years Together: 4
Isobel is nine months pregnant with the Berkeley couple’s first child. The baby was conceived through a known sperm donor, a longtime friend who will act as a “super-uncle.” Because Angela is not the child’s biological parent, she will adopt, but it won’t be final until four to six months after the birth. In the meantime, Angela has no parental rights. The couple tied the knot six days after learning Isobel was pregnant.
Isobel: We laugh sometimes about how many different attempts we’ve made to get married. We registered as domestic partners in June of 2001 and then in September 2002 we actually had what our friends called the most traditional “nontraditional” wedding in history.
Angela: She had five bridesmaids dressed in matching dresses, a big white gown.
Isobel: We had a minister.
Angela: We did the hora. It was ab-solutely beautiful, just the most awesome wedding you can imagine. Really our friends and family acknowledged that that’s when we got married. But of course we didn’t have a lick of legal rights as a result of that.
Did the City Hall vows feel any different?
Isobel: Definitely. The words were so…
Angela: … historic.
Isobel: They were these words that we had heard ever since we were kids.
Angela: Those words you hear your entire life, in every movie … and I have never been a part of that. I never imagined it as a kid that I was ever going to have that. So it was so incredibly powerful to hear somebody saying them, and they were saying them to me.
How does the lack of official recognition affect your lives?
Angela: This is our baby, we’re married, this is our home, this is our family that we’re creating, yet I have to go through a pretty extensive process to become considered this baby’s parent. I have to do a domestic partnership adoption. We trust the donor, but until he signs parental rights away and I adopt, I don’t have any rights at all. And we have to fill out special paperwork to be sure that I can make decisions for our baby and make decisions for Isobel if something was to happen to Isobel in the hospital. That’s not all a given like it would be if we were married.
For a married heterosexual couple, nobody ever questions whether that man is the father of that baby regardless of paternity. He gets to put his name on the birth certificate as “father” from day one. I don’t get to put my name on the birth certificate. You have to leave “father” blank or say “unknown” or put little dashes. And then we go through the adoption process and have to file to have a new birth certificate printed. It’s really cool that we do get to do that eventually, but that’s not really going to safeguard us if we’re traveling, for example, or if there’s any kind of question. I’ll need to have those adoption papers with me. Not copies, the originals.
Isobel: Angela has some family in Oklahoma. Oklahoma just passed a law whereby they don’t recognize same-sex adoptions from other states. They’re the first state in the nation — and hopefully the only state — to do this. If we go to Oklahoma and something were to happen to me, we would not be guaranteed that Angela would be able to care for the child.
Angela: I wouldn’t be considered a parent.
Isobel: And this could be if the adoption’s been valid for years! We do feel lucky to live in California at the time that we do. We have friends in Arizona, two women, and the nonbiological mom will not be able to adopt the child. It is illegal in Arizona for a same-sex couple to adopt. A lot of people have worked really hard to achieve rights in California that are desperately needed. There are some couples who feel like, c’mon, this is about love, this isn’t about paperwork — we don’t want to have to fill out hours of paperwork that other people don’t have to, or for whatever reason they don’t go through with the adoption process. But there have been several really significant court cases this summer in all of which the nonbio mom has lost. If the couple has split up there have been absolutely no rights going to her. Not that we’re going to split up, but we have to think about it. As a friend of mine says: You owe it to the child to give her as many parents as she can have. So that’s what we’re going to do. We want it to be abundantly clear to everybody in the world that we are in a loving, committed family relationship and that a child born in this relationship should be both of ours from the moment she is born. And that’s not the case right now.
How did marriage change your daily life?
Angela: There was a lot of stress really fast, like “What does it mean?” There were rumors that if you got married then your domestic partnership is invalid. We have a baby on the way, so I was like, oh my God, what if we lose our domestic partnership rights and then they don’t acknowledge our marriage? Then we’ll be really screwed!
Isobel: I know one couple who didn’t get married because they were in the process of adopting and they didn’t want to mess with it.
Angela: I had feelings about people making jokes like, “Now your baby is going to be legitimate,’ or “You finally made an honest woman out of Isobel.” I felt like, “We already had our real wedding!” We just had no rights associated with it. Like, I’m taking Isobel’s last name so that we have a family name. If we had the right to be married I could have changed my name for the cost of the marriage certificate. It’s a process I’m doing to try to help ensure that the world sees our family as a family.
What’s next for you?
Angela: I really hope to have the second baby. My hormones were just going crazy even before Isobel got pregnant. I’ve had way more pregnancy symptoms than she has! I’m so attached to the baby already that sometimes I get teary-eyed just thinking about her. I always do this joke where I’m like, “My turn! Let me carry her!'” [She lunges for Isobel’s stomach.]
So, would you do it again?
Angela: We’ll do it ten more times if that’s what it takes, going down to City Hall and continuing to show that we want this and need this and deserve this.
Isobel: I know our daughter and our second child will be proud of us for what we did here. And I would hope that she would tell the story to her kids: “I was there! When your grandmas got married, I was in utero!”
Wendy & Belinda
Wendy Daw, 37, acupuncturist
Belinda Ryan, 40, helicoptor pilot, aerial photographer
Years Together: 7
Belinda is a British citizen from Wales here on an employer-sponsored H1-B work visa. Because their marriage is not federally recognized, Wendy cannot sponsor Belinda for US citizenship. Although the Fremont couple has registered as domestic partners, they haven’t had the time for a private ceremony, or the money — they’ve spent more than $20,000 trying to extend Belinda’s visa. Belinda’s visa extensions expire in April 2006, and she’ll have to leave the country. Wendy plans to leave, too.
Wendy: I think we all got maybe four hours of sleep because we planned to be at City Hall at 6:30 in the morning.
Belinda: We were actually fourth in line. We watched the sun rise over the city.
Wendy: It was so impromptu. We didn’t even have rings. We haven’t bought rings yet for each other because we spend all our money on immigration attorneys!
At some point in my early adult life, I knew I wasn’t going to marry a man, so I always drew lines around how involved I would get with whomever I went out with. I had never lived with anybody before Belinda, and for me that was the line: If I choose to live with someone, that’s tantamount to me saying I’ve married you. So from the moment I handed her the key and she moved in, I’d made that commitment. But we hadn’t done that publicly. So when we stood there in front of our friends and we got married, what I was really struck by, moved by — shaken by, actually — was that wow, this is real. It actually kind of freaked me out a little bit. It was like, wow, I’ve married you. That felt very big. That felt very final. It was really a huge step in my life.
What’s next for you?
Belinda: We’ve got a country we can go to. Because of my British passport I can take Wendy back there. If I was from Asia or the Middle East, Wendy as an American probably wouldn’t be able to get into the country. Plus you couldn’t live there as a gay couple without severe difficulties.
Wendy: There are actually sixteen countries that will recognize our relationship simply for the purposes of immigration: South Africa, Israel, Brazil, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and other European countries. We could potentially go just about anywhere in Europe together, I think. People say, “Wow, cool, you could live in Europe! Why don’t you just go?” Well, sure, if we were making the decision that that’s what we wanted to do. But when you’re not making the choice and you’re doing it because you’re being forced to, it becomes not so fun, and not an adventure. It becomes dreadful.
Belinda: We’ve become a lot more aware of how many rights we weren’t getting specifically with regard to immigration because we couldn’t get married. Wendy isn’t allowed to sponsor me. Unlike another American who falls in love with a foreigner, because we’re same-sex, Wendy is facing the prospect of having to live in exile.
Wendy: I’m American — I’ve grown up with the knowledge that I can pretty much live wherever I want to, do whatever I want to, solve whatever problem comes up. Now I’ve run into a situation that says that every single one of those things that I’ve been taught to believe is incorrect. Not for everybody — just for me and people like me. The US will grant asylum to gays and lesbians who are being persecuted in their country of origin, which is wonderful. But that same government and immigration system is telling me that to stay with the person I have committed my life to, I have to leave. That doesn’t make any sense. All we want is the opportunity to go through the same process that any heterosexual couple would go through to get permanent residency. We want the interviews, dammit! I want you to ask me which end of the toothpaste tube she squeezes! I want you to ask me what kind of shampoo she uses and which way she puts her underwear on. C’mon, bring it on!
Did you hope getting married in San Francisco could solve your problem?
Belinda: No, because it won’t.
Wendy: We need it to be legal at the federal level, because immigration is completely federal.
Belinda: There is hope for us. There is a piece of legislation which if it passed it would add the words “permanent partner” where the word “spouse” is in immigration law.
Wendy: It’s called the Permanent Partner Immigration Act.
Belinda: It’s in the House and the Senate. Senator [John] Kerry is one of the cosponsors for the bill. But it’s not going anywhere with the Republican-controlled House, unfortunately.
Wendy: They can’t get it to the floor. It’s been in the House for the last three or four years, and a year ago was the first time it was introduced in the Senate.
Has Belinda’s immigration status made it difficult to plan for the future?
Wendy: We’ve always talked about having kids, a ceremony, even issues like how much of a practice do I build up.
Belinda: Even, do we get a little puppy?
Wendy: We haven’t bought any of the furniture in our house, it’s all been stuff that people have given to us because we don’t spend money on any of that stuff, simply because if we have to pick up and move in a year, why bother? We wanted to be foster parents and knew that ultimately we’d want to adopt. We have talked about getting pregnant, and we’ve put all of that on hold, which makes me really unhappy.
Belinda: Wendy would have a house full of children.
Wendy: I would. But when you’re spending all your money on attorney’s fees…
Belinda: … and you can’t give them security…
Wendy: … and even if we adopt here, we don’t know legally if that would be recognized in another country. It’s made Belinda not want to have children, because she doesn’t think that would be fair to them. We’ve got a lot of stress and uncertainty that hangs around in our lives, and she doesn’t think it would be good to bring anybody else into that. Which I can understand. But I’m getting older, and I’m finally in that relationship where I would build a family, and I’ve been stopped from doing that because of all this stuff that I have no control over. I’m really frustrated by that. And I’m angry. I’m very angry. And I always laugh when I say I’m angry about this stuff, but it’s because otherwise I’ll cry.
Do you know of other couples in your situation?
Wendy: I’m continually amazed by how many binational same-sex couples there are, because they’re everywhere.
Belinda: The problem is so many people won’t tell you their story because they’re frightened of being visible in the eyes of immigration.
Wendy: Government is a very scary thing for some people. How many people have we had to watch leave or split up? Sometimes I wonder how we’ve managed to stay together, given the stress that it’s put on our relationship. This immigration stuff, it’s always there. It’s not just that we have to leave, it’s “Did you file that piece of paper? Did you talk to the attorney about this? Have you done this? Have we paid that?” It’s like this constant thread that runs through our life every day.
Belinda: For better or for worse.
Stewart & Leland
Stewart Blandón, 38, doctor
Leland Traiman, 52, nurse practitioner, fertility clinic owner
Kids: Julian, 4
Years Together: 14
Leland likes to say their son came “from the Internet.” Although the Alameda couple used an adoption agency, they met Julian’s birth mother through a Web site Stewart put up. They took two days to get married; one standing in line with an antsy four-year-old to get the license and another to do the ceremony.
Had you previously had a ceremony?
Leland: [laughs loudly]
Stewart: For us, it wasn’t a giant priority. We dated our marriage from October 11, 1991. That’s the day Berkeley extended domestic partner registration to everybody on the planet. We got certificate #3 and we had a little ceremony with the mayor …
Leland: … and 28 other couples.
Stewart: People always ask us, “Are you going to get married?” and we said, well, not really. We know we’re married, and that was that. No friends, no family, nothing.
So why did you do it?
Stewart: I remember saying to Leland specifically that if they shut it down — which I fully expected them to do — we’ll have an interesting souvenir. I just didn’t have high hopes that this was going to go anywhere legally.
Leland: I had every confidence that we would lose it in the courts. But it was important to make a statement. Because battles like these are never won overnight. As much as Gavin Newsom, bless his name, wanted to give us our civil rights, civil rights are never given, they are always won.
Stewart: They are taken. So that’s how we came to the decision to get married: because we could. We called up friends and family and said be at City Hall at the front steps at 10 a.m. We went out and bought matching shirts and boutonnieres — a wedding in 24 hours!
Leland: And the strangest thing happened. We already had the license. So we didn’t need to stand in line. …
Stewart: … We just needed to get married, so we were asking, can we get into the rotunda to find someone to marry us?
Leland: A guy said, I can marry you right out here standing on the front steps of City Hall. People in the crowd started chanting “Marry them! Marry them!” So he created a little space on the steps of City Hall, and we stood in front of him. Julian stood between us, and our friends and family formed a semicircle around us. It was a very sweet and beautiful service. We kissed and we turned around and looked at all of our friends and family and right in back of them were about forty Japanese tourists going click click click. So God knows how many Japanese Web sites our marriage got put on.
Stewart: It was magical and it was a circus at the same time.
Did it make you feel any different?
Leland: Yes, it did for me. I knew at Berkeley we were taking baby steps towards the future. This was a much bigger step, politically. It was amazing to actually get married in front of …
Stewart: … friends and family and witnesses. Out in the open. Just like anybody else.
Leland: As they said in Moonstruck, “In front of God and all of these people.” Julian’s comment was, “The kissing at the wedding was just disgusting,” which is a really good four-year-old comment to make.
What’s next for you?
Leland: We have a new Web site because we’re trying to adopt a second time now. Now we’re different from who we were. We’re not the world travelers anymore, we’re this stay-at-home couple with our kid. But it’s been up at least a year and a half.
Stewart: We tried to go through the foster adopt system, but they really pissed us off. There were so many rules, and ugh, I just couldn’t take it anymore, so we called it quits.
Leland: I was always afraid of adoption because of social workers coming into my house saying you’ve got to do this and that, and judging me as if I couldn’t be a good parent. They actually made real all of my worst adoption fantasies.
Stewart: Currently we are also trying with a surrogate.
Leland: Whatever happens first, happens first.
Were there any rights you hoped to gain from marriage?
Leland: The domestic partnership didn’t go far enough. If we had civil unions or domestic partnerships that had all the same rights and responsibilities as marriage, that would be enough. Quite frankly, I don’t care what you call it. “Separate but equal” rarely works but oddly enough, I think in this case it would work — if it really was equal. There’s part of me that believes that government should get out of the marriage business completely and only perform civil unions, and marriages should be done by religious institutions. But that’s an idea way ahead of its time, as Maude would say — like liberating canaries from the pet store.
Stewart: We’re both big fans of Bill Clinton but still angry at him for actually signing the Defense of Marriage Act. What the fuck are they scared of? I mean, go after The Bachelor and Who Wants to Marry My Dad? and all those stupid reality shows that make a mockery of relationships. Why are they coming after us? We’re a stable gay couple who’s been together fourteen years. We pay our taxes. We’re responsible citizens.
Leland: We volunteer in our community; we help run the schools!
Stewart: And Britney Spears can get married for 55 hours! It’s just nuts. Go stop those people!
Did the marriages change anything?
Leland: The fact that everyone in America got to see people get married, and not drag queens and people in thongs — not to say that they’re not part of our community and we don’t feel fine about them, but that’s not who we all are. They got to see families who look just like their relatives or their friends or themselves.
Stewart: I went into this very pessimistic, I guess, knowing that this was good, this was going to be fun, but I never expected it to last. So when it was taken away, okay. What I have is some very beautiful memories. I still get choked up about it when I think about the day and when I retell the story of all of our friends and our family and our child being there. That’s what I have. And nobody can take that away.
Jennifer & Amy
Jennifer Ikemoto, 34, state employee
Amy Bohorquez, 30, Laney College biology instructor
Years Together: 3
Both members of this Oakland couple are mixed-race — Jennifer is of Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese descent, and Amy is Colombian and Irish — and both come from Catholic families in which some members do not approve of homosexuality. A photograph of them getting married made the front page of many newspapers, outing the couple to some of Amy’s family members.
Amy: We were going to go to Las Vegas and get married about a year and a half ago, then our friends got all mad at the idea that we were going to elope. It actually costs a lot of money, so I was like, I’m not spending $1,500 to get married by Elvis! So we decided to have a wedding ceremony — we’d planned on June 2004. We were about halfway through planning our wedding when Gavin Newsom changed the application form. So it was like, hmmm…
Jennifer: It was like “Gay Marriage Watch” on the news. We were sitting there watching all of the couples who got married and the joy on everybody’s faces.
Amy: We were like, oh, we’ve gotta go. So we finished our coffee and threw on clothes and ran down to BART.
Did you have any concerns about a public ceremony?
Jennifer: During World War II my family was interned at Tule Lake and when we became domestic partners we had discussed, do we want to be on a list? It’s an easy way for someone to pick you out. Going there on that Friday was still the same type of feeling; like, is this going to come back on me someday?
Amy: In line we were talking about that: Now they’re really going to be able to find us because we’re on this list of lawbreakers.
How was it different than you’d imagined?
Amy: We didn’t bring our family and nobody was there. In some ways it was nice that it was just the two of us. It was kind of in a way nicer, because when we had our big wedding, it was all family drama around the wedding.
Jennifer: It would have been really neat for my parents to see this, especially because my mom has gotten better but my dad is still coming to terms about me being gay. So if he would have seen and experienced what we were experiencing at that time, I don’t see how he could have not have overcome more of a barrier. He’s coming leaps and bounds, but still, I think it would have been nice if he’d been there.
Did it change your relationship?
Amy: It kind of seemed like part of a larger action with all of these people involved and it took two or three months to really feel, like oh, we got married. In a way you had to stay a little distanced from it because it was on the news every night, it was on Larry King, people everyday were saying that you’re bad and you shouldn’t be able to get married.
Jennifer: It was your relationship being dissected on TV night after night, and we had family members who were wonderful and family members who weren’t so wonderful. Having to deal with all of that was quite emotional and almost superseded the fact that oh yeah, we’re married.
My mom raised us Catholic but my dad is a Buddhist, so he does have that traditional Japanese sense that you just don’t discuss things. You just go along, follow my rules and regulations, and we don’t discuss it if it’s something that’s uncomfortable. He’s getting a little better. My mom’s come from kind of being in the same realm as my dad, to talking about our relationship to her friends and calling.
Amy: Now she has all these plans for the future that include me, which is nice. My parents like to piss off their family so they were pretty happy. They enjoyed sending out an e-mail about how they wanted everyone to welcome Jen into the family. They’re from Bogotá, so I grew up pretty Latin American Catholic. But my dad’s family also wanted to fit in in America, so they wouldn’t refer to themselves as Latinos. They’re Republicans. I wish Jen had been able to meet them before they all got to have their own little side-conversations about their opinions of the whole thing. Because now it seems like it would be very awkward to go to our family’s Christmas just knowing what they’ve all said behind my back.
Jennifer: They keep praying for us.
Amy: We are going to hell, yes. But all of our friends are going to be there, so that’s fine. And it’s been kind of interesting listening to the conversations of the family that have unfolded. It kind of doesn’t involve us anymore — now it’s really about them. That’s cool.
Interracial marriage was controversial in your parents’ time. Has this given you something to bond over?
Amy: Now we can see more of the parallels between the two struggles. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t until 1967 that they finally changed the federal laws on interracial marriages. It was during the 1940s in California but it was ’67 federally. Marriage licenses don’t cross state boundaries because of interracial marriages. There were states that didn’t allow interracial marriages that didn’t want to recognize the marriage licenses given in California, so they had to change federal law to make those things go through. So even if we were married here or in Massachusetts or Canada, we’re not married once we go into states that won’t recognize the marriage license.
With all the conflict that surrounded all of those weddings, I guess we just feel like part of the family now.
What was your reaction to the court ruling?
Jennifer: I knew that it was probably going to happen and that it could open a Pandora’s box to have an elected official be able to interpret the constitution. And even though what Newsom did is right and admirable, it just allows someone who is maybe not as admirable to interpret the constitution.
Amy: Most of the people we were in line with understood that this was just the beginning of the struggle — that the marriages could be nullified or they could stop doing the ceremonies. And that it was going to become not just a statewide battle but a national issue. I’m looking at the twenty years difference between California and the federal government with interracial marriages. I don’t think this is actually going to take twenty years; I think this is going to happen much faster. Even our own families, now they know a couple affected by the changes in the law, and by what’s on TV. I think that putting that face to it is really important.
Mickey & Sallyanne
Mickey Neill, 53, retired human resources manager
Sallyanne Monti, 43, consulting firm director
Kids: Stephanie, 20; Christine, 19; Alyssa, 15; Frank, 14
Years Together: 6
The four children of this Alameda couple are Sallyanne’s from a previous marriage. Their father, who has since remarried, shares custody of the kids; because their marriage is not recognized, Mickey is not a legal stepparent. The two eldest kids are attending college. The younger ones, Alyssa and Frank, took part in the interview.
Sallyanne: We got invited to a reception at City Hall by the mayor with a lot of other people. It was in the midst of Day 2 of marrying same-sex couples. I think at that point we were blown away by the fact that, wow, you can really get married.
Mickey: We thought we were married for all intents and purposes. We thought really that heterosexuals owned the word “marriage” and that’s the way the world worked.
Sallyanne: We didn’t agree with it, mind you.
Mickey: We had done a lot to protect ourselves and the kids financially with wills and living trusts and all the paperwork that a heterosexual doesn’t need to do to protect their children. We thought we had done everything that we could to solidify our family in all the rights that were available to us at the time. So we went to the reception and it was like marriages were breaking out! This was kind of exciting! We looked at each other and said, “Do you want to get married?'”
Sallyanne: We thought it would be our way of participating in history. We thought we were doing it for the community and that we didn’t need it, but in the final analysis it was a wake-up call to the fact that we’d been denied our civil rights.
So you went back another day?
Sallyanne: I think we got up at 4. We got to the city at 5:30 a.m.
Mickey: Getting teenagers out of bed at that time is not what they like to do, but they were totally up for it. We brought coffee and things to eat, and we opened up our tent and put it on the sidewalk. Everybody was crazy in love, in front of us, in back of us, they were excited and so happy to be there. Everybody would come by honking, or donating food, bringing coffee …
Sallyanne: … socks, gloves …
Mickey: … because it was pouring rain. Just taking care of us.
Alyssa: It was an amazing experience. I mean, I did my share of complaining about the hours and the rain, but once you were inside City Hall — wading through more lines — you were getting closer and closer to the room where they were marrying everyone, it was really exciting. It was really personal, but you were sharing it with so many other people. It was one of those breaking points in history.
Did it change your relationship?
Frank: It was more like they were doing it more to help out the community. It didn’t really change their marriage, or make them more married than they were before.
Mickey: We really did originally go there on behalf of the community: Here’s another couple who needs to take a stand to get married. But we experienced something that we were really surprised at during the course of the ceremony. Certainly we felt that deep and abiding love that you know when you’re looking into your partner’s eyes and say “I’m committing my life to you forever.”
Sallyanne: And we embraced the words. We really stayed away from the conventional marriage words in our commitment ceremony. We thought that we did it because we wanted something different and we don’t need those words. Now I think that was just our emotional self finding a way for us to deal with the fact that they weren’t our words to say. Having the right to say them was amazing. We’d thought, oh, how personal could getting married at City Hall be? But it was the most amazing experience I think that we’ve ever had as a couple. There were hundreds of people on the steps, and when we walked out after getting married they were handing us sparkling apple cider and throwing rice, and for every one of those couples who walked down, there were cheers of nothing but goodwill. If City Hall could have glowed that day, they could have seen the glow of the rotunda from space.
Have you discussed legal issues as a family?
Frank: We had a discussion about it once, and they told us all the stuff that would happen with money if one of them died and how we have no right to anything of Mickey’s at all. It was kind of scary.
Mickey: If their mom should die, I don’t have any rights to them and they don’t have any rights to me. If their father didn’t want them to be with me, he could remove them until they were eighteen. That was scary for all of us. I mean, I’m the one who makes all the medical appointments, makes all the dental appointments, gets them to take PSAT tests for college, looks out for their future. Who would do that for them if I was gone?
What was your reaction to the court ruling?
Mickey: We feel that we had something that was truly taken away from us. We’re more committed to our community to continue to fight to have equal rights.
Alyssa: When those four thousand couples were married it was like a big stepping-stone for them. To give it to them and then take it away is just wrong. I think that it really got their hopes up, and the fact that the Supreme Court could just take that away is just … I don’t think that they quite understand. Every time I pick up the newspaper it always seems like the argument’s something religious, or that “the family’s not fit.” The leaders of our country don’t look at the people they’re judging and see that they’re just a normal family who want to raise children or be together. That’s just disheartening.
What’s next for your family?
Sallyanne: A really important thing is that we just try to be us. Because the image of us is no different than the image of the family directly across the street that has two parents, four kids, two dogs, a bunch of cars, some jobs. They water their lawn; we water ours. Their lights go on when it gets dark; so do ours. It’s no different.
Mickey: And we don’t want to be invisible. Lesbians like us who live in suburbia could be the invisible gay families.
Alyssa: In my school, I’ve met kids whose parents are gay, too. It’s open. No one’s like, “Oh, your mom is gay, that’s weird.” I know kids who are gay … my brother knows kids who are and he was just in middle school. These kids are going to be our future, and hopefully a lot more kids are like that around the country.
Frank: I remember when Mickey and my mom first got together how quiet I was about it. I never told anyone. But now it feels so much different. It’s just completely changed a lot and I think it’s just becoming more normal.
Mickey: Frank, you said the other day that your friends called you “the poster child for lesbian moms.”
Frank: It felt strange — because I’d gotten so much publicity that my mothers are gay that people are paying attention to it more. That kind of bugged me.
Mickey: I think we prefer to think of ourselves as “the poster family for equality.”
Sallyanne: We framed a photograph, which is in our TV room, of us and the kids. What is perverse about what you see there? There are two kids who graduated from high school, there are our other two kids, and there are two happy women. If people looked at that, they couldn’t say it was disgusting. They’d say they wanted it, and they wished they had it.
Frank: They’d probably say, “Oh, that’s nice — they’re in love.”