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One Couple’s Story of Why We Need Marriage Equality in Nebraska and Nationwide

A Conversation with Leigh and Candace

Meet Leigh Hessel and Candace Krueger, long time Marriage Equality USA members, who worked hard to help bring the freedom to marry to California. Leigh and Candace married in Oakland in 2008, but the Great Recession and the high cost of living in the Bay Area forced the couple to relocate where they had family: Nebraska, a state that banned marriage and other legal recognition of same-sex couples. On Monday, 2 March 2015, the federal district court in Nebraska ruled the state’s ban unconstitutional. The decision will go into effect Monday, 9 March 2015 unless the 8th Circuit Court of Appeal stays the decision. As we wait to learn what the 8th Circuit does, Leigh and Candace give us a personal glimpse as to what it is like for a married couple to lose marriage equality when they have to move to another state. Their story is testament to their strength as a married couple and to why marriage equality should be law throughout the USA.

Leigh and Candace: We met and fell in love 14 years ago and created a life and a home together. We built close bonds with many different communities in the San Francisco Bay Area and lived in Oakland and unincorporated San Leandro, California.

We have been committed to lesbian and gay equality for years and have loved being part of Marriage Equality USA, where we worked hard to help bring marriage equality to California. We registered as domestic partners in 2002 to obtain the limited rights and protections California law provided at that time. When the City and County of San Francisco married same-sex couples for a brief window of time in 2004, we got to City Hall as soon as we could, which was President’s Day 2004.

Leigh: We waited in line for eight hours to be able to get married. Our community surrounded us, and San Francisco City Hall was filled with same-sex couples, their friends and families. We felt enormous support and camaraderie, but when our wedding ceremony began, it was just the two of us together in what felt like a safe and secure bubble. We held each other’s hands. We looked into each other’s eyes. As we took our marriage vows and exchanged our rings, we realized that we had never thought these words would ever apply to us as lesbians. Finally, they did. It was very, very moving. We and our community had finally arrived. We really treasured the two women, the marriage commissioner and our witness, who were part of our ceremony because they were members of lesbian communities we belonged to.

Leigh_and_Candace_Nebraska_couple.jpgCandace: Getting married changed our relationship with each other and with our families. Difficulties we have do not seem as bad because we are unified by that piece of paper. We work harder and deeper to resolve problems because we are legally bound. Getting married transformed our relationship together and with my family in Nebraska. Before we married, my family could not understand the nature of our relationship even though they knew Leigh. After we married, they understood it because they knew what being married meant. Marriage is a universally understood rite of passage. They could relate to our relationship just as they did to all the other married couples they knew. This new understanding brought much greater acceptance.

The California Supreme Court nullified the over four thousand marriages that took place in San Francisco in 2004, but in 2008 Leigh and Candace married again – this time for good – when same-sex marriage was legal in California before Proposition 8 passed.

Leigh and Candace: When we married in 2008, it felt more like a shotgun wedding since we did it two weeks before the 2008 General Election where our freedom to marry was put up for a vote with Proposition 8. We had just two witnesses and the assigned Marriage Commissioner at the Alameda County Recorder’s Office. Nonetheless, we found tears rolling down our cheeks during the ceremony, and the experience was still extremely powerful, because once again we were making profound life vows to each other and binding ourselves together legally.

Leigh and Candace’s vows and marriage would soon be tested. America’s hard economic times were devastating to the couple.

Leigh: The recession killed my career as an electrician. I couldn’t find work, and I was told that I did not qualify for an unemployment extension. One income was not enough to survive in the San Francisco Bay Area. What little savings we had dwindled. Soon we began having trouble paying our bills, including our rent. We had two weeks to vacate our apartment, and we faced homelessness.

Fortunately, Candace’s family in the Tri Cities area of Nebraska offered to put us up while we got back on our feet. We quickly packed up what we could fit in our two cars and the small U-Haul trailers they pulled, and we moved to Nebraska. We lost not only our furniture and possessions that wouldn’t fit in our cars; we lost being close to our dear friends and our community in California. I had lived in California for over thirty years.

Candace: Perhaps most importantly, it felt like we lost our marriage when we moved to Nebraska. It was devastating. We grieved. Being married means so much to us, and we worked really hard to help bring marriage equality to California. We tell everyone we can that we are married in California so that they know same-sex couples are part of their lives and their communities. But it’s no longer really true because Nebraska law doesn’t recognize us as married. Because of Nebraska’s sweeping state constitutional amendment against rights for same-sex couples, we can’t even get a domestic partnership, civil union, or anything that would give us limited rights as a couple. We are legal strangers under state law with no protection at all for our relationship for things like property, being on the other’s health insurance, and taxes. It’s scary. We are very thankful to have many federal rights and protections, but it’s not enough.

Leigh: Like many people, Candace has diabetes and heart problems. Soon after we arrived in Nebraska, Candace needed to be hospitalized, and we didn’t know whether the hospital would give me access to be with her and would respect who we are because we didn’t know whether the hospital would respect us as a married couple. Fortunately, due to federal law, I was able to visit and support her and assist her in making medical decisions, but the uncertainty intensified the stress we were already feeling.

Candace: When we do our income taxes, we fill out joint forms for our federal taxes because the IRS recognizes us as married, but we have to fill out forms as single people for our Nebraska state taxes. The process is complicated and confusing – and it is humiliating and angering. We have to declare falsely that we are not married when we are - both in our hearts and under the laws of California, many other states, and the federal government. It’s also heartbreaking when we see same-sex couples whose families have lived for generations in Nebraska have to cross the border to Iowa to get married.

Leigh and Candace both have jobs now and are able to live on their own again, in a trailer that is twice as big as their apartment in California.

Leigh and Candace: Honestly, all the upheaval in our lives over the last few years has put a lot of stress on our relationship. But we love each other deeply, and we remain dedicated to the very real commitments we made to each other when we married: ‘For better and for worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health.’ Our wedding vows have sustained us. We are building our lives together here in Nebraska.

Update - 5 March 2015

On Monday, 2 March 2015, the federal district court in Nebraska held that the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples was unconstitutional. However, on Thursday, 5 March 2015, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeal stayed the decision, delaying its implementation.

We were ecstatic when the Nebraska district court ruled that Nebraska’s constitutional amendment banning marriage and any other relationship recognition for same-sex couples was unconstitutional. We felt that we may finally be legal in Nebraska after all. We’re frustrated and disappointed that the appeals court put the district court’s decision on hold, keeping us in a limbo status. We look to the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of full marriage equality later this year.


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