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.
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