In part two of MEUSA’s three-part interview with Edie Windsor, Edie recounts the struggles of gay life before Stonewall and her persistence pursuing her eventual wife, Thea Spyer.
Part one, for those who missed it or who wish to view it again, follows:
Not every couple celebrates their first and 25th anniversaries in the same year. Then again, not every couple has navigated a roller coaster quite like the one Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorheis have – that of legal recognition of same gender relationships both as activists and a committed couple.
After a short courtship, the couple held their first nuptials in the form of a commitment ceremony in 1979. “We knew it wasn’t something that was done but it was something that was important to us,” says Robert. “Our gay friends couldn’t wrap their heads around two men having a ceremony. People in the (LGBT) community were having trouble with it.”
Friends and family also had various reactions. No one from Robert’s family attended their commitment ceremony although, he says, “Michael was accepted as a member of the family.” While Michael’s mother was open to attending, the two had kept the ceremony a secret from Michael’s father. They knew of no way for the mother to be away for so long without arousing suspicion. Michael points out, however, that some of his cousins attended, and one of his maternal aunts gave them a gift. “She accepted the ceremony as a wedding and gave us the same gift she had given to all of her nieces and nephews at their weddings,” he says.
Robert and Michael took another interim step in 2002, becoming the second couple in Westchester County (in New York State) to register as domestic partners. “Domestic partnership was a non-entity,” says Robert, “though we were thrilled it was happening. This was the first step to full marriage equality.” Never-the-less, the couple did not treat their domestic partnership as anything other than a legality and held no ceremony to mark the occasion.
Dealing with the palpable discomfort among friends within the LGBT community after their 1979 commitment ceremony would prove to be a valuable experience. The couple encountered substantial resistance among established LGBT organizations during their early participation in the movement for marriage equality.
Michael remembers the push back in the early years of campaigning for marriage equality. “All of the major organizations were against us. The first inkling that we were getting somewhere was when Massachusetts got it, or maybe when Canada approved marriage. I think that, to us, was one of the turning points,” he says, both for them and the established LGBT organizations.
“I happened to be on a business trip, that Robert had joined me on, and Robert had just gone back home,” says Michael, reflecting back on the day when Canada joined the ranks of marriage equality countries. “I remained in Canada. I called him back and asked if he wanted to get married.”
Then, in 2003, 24 years after their commitment ceremony, Michael and Robert legally married each other in Niagara Falls, Canada, in front of approximately 50 guests. This time, rather than issues pertaining to cultural acceptance, it was geographical distance that kept the event from being even larger. “My cousin who, we thought, would never accept the invitation was the first to accept,” notes Michael. “My mom gave us away.”
Their wedding in Canada added impetus to their quest for full equality at home. The couple, represented by Lambda Legal, intervened on behalf of the Westchester County Executive, who was sued by an outside party for recognizing out-of-state marriages like theirs. The case, Godfrey vs. Spano, would go to New York’s highest court and set the precedent for statewide legal recognition of gay couples married in other jurisdictions.
In addition to their early involvement as litigants, Michael and Robert were among the original founders of Marriage Equality New York, which later would merge with Marriage Equality USA. “I think we were one of only two couples among the early participants, the other being Cathy Marino Thomas and her wife, Sheila,” says Robert. “The rest were all single. There were 10 in the core group.” Although the two have partaken in more than their fair share of rallies, their emphasis has always been on education and engagement. “Education is the key — you have to make people aware of the issues,” says Robert.
Once married, the two quickly realized their work as activists and educators was far from finished. Upon returning from their wedding, the priest at their local Catholic parish ejected them from the choir. “Making people realize you cannot separate the church from this issue,” says Robert, was one of key elements the two considered critical. “LGBT groups backed away from us, characterizing it as a religious issue. But it is not just a religious issue, it is a civil rights issue. LGBT groups experienced in lobbying told us at MENY that we could not ask our legislators what their position was on marriage for same sex couples. It was too controversial.”
In spite of opposition from all sides, Robert says that, from the beginning, “We knew we were going to ask about one question -- marriage. MENY sent out a statewide questionnaire. Most legislators ignored them. Of those who returned them, there were certainly more ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’s.’” Picking up where his husband left off, Michael adds that, “within a year after Canada, they (LGBT organizations) were starting to embrace the idea. MENY coined the term ‘marriage equality.’”
The couple also lays claim to another milestone in the marriage equality movement, having been instrumental in making the connections to get Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer to Canada for their wedding. Windsor vs. U.S. would become the landmark decision requiring the federal government to recognize marriages performed in marriage equality states. The opinion cited Godfrey vs. Spano, in which Robert and Michael had been lead participants to prove their marriage was recognized in New York State.
Since Windsor, when same gender couples could finally receive all of the rights, responsibilities and privileges of marriage afforded by federal law, the couple has contemplated the reality of true marriage equality. Discussing the reality of a potentially larger federal income tax liability because of the marriage penalty, Michael notes, “That is one of the responsibilities of marriage, to pay that marriage penalty. I was happy to pay those taxes because I am now an equal citizen. It comes with the whole enchilada. You want to be treated equally, that’s part of the whole enchilada. That’s what comes with the rights and responsibilities of marriage. You can’t just take the pluses and eliminate the minuses. But you now also have the rights that we have been denied for so long.”
With equal marriage rights having been secured in New York and much of the country, Robert will be stepping down from the MEUSA board. "Each of us owes a huge debt of gratitude to Robert and Michael for their work and personal sacrifice in making both MEUSA and the entire marriage equality movement a success,” says MEUSA Executive Director Brian Silva. "Their successful lawsuit early in our struggle was critical in bringing recognition for LGBTQ New York families. And Robert's leadership on our Board as we have merged, transitioned and grown in these past few years will be sorely missed."
Twice in our lives, we’ve quit our jobs and travelled around the world for a year with whatever we could carry on our backs. So we love this year’s parade theme: Color Our World with Pride. After San Francisco Pride, we will be headed to Okinawa, Japan, to participate in the Pink Dot Okinawa pride events and speak at the very first Okinawa marriage equality rally, to be held in the center of the island’s largest city.
In Japan, we will also continue our collaboration with Japanese LGBT activists in Tokyo and Osaka. Recently, Akie Abe, the Japanese First Lady, rode in the Tokyo Pride Parade accompanied by a fabulous drag queen, and proclaimed: “I want to help build a society where anyone can lead happy, contented lives without facing discrimination.”
Across two oceans, Luxembourg Pride will celebrate the tiny country’s giant news that earlier this month it became the 19th country with marriage equality. The fact that Luxembourg’s openly gay Prime Minister Xavier Battel will implement the law makes the landslide 56-4 vote in the Chamber of Deputies all the sweeter. And as soccer fans around the globe follow the World Cup this summer, we take pride that the host country Brazil, a nation of 200 million people, boasts marriage equality. Indeed, last December the Rio de Janeiro Superior Court of Justice conducted the world’s largest LGBT wedding ever, in which 130 couples tied the knot.
However, in other parts of the world, LGBT people are marching for their basic human rights and freedom. In India, Mumbai’s Pride Parade this February drew a record crowd gathering to protest the Indian Supreme Court’s upholding “Section 377,” a British colonial era law that criminalized sexual activity of LGBT people. The Indian Supreme Court’s decision has galvanized many Indian LGBT people and allies to stand up and fight back. In a rare move, the Indian Supreme Court has agreed to rehear the case.
Sadly, there will be no pride parades this summer in many parts of the globe where LGBT people are struggling simply to survive. In nine countries, LGBT sexual activity is punishable by death. One image that remains emblazoned on our minds is a 2010 photograph of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who were arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison in the East African nation of Malawi for being gay and announcing their engagement to be married. The photo shows Steven and Tiwonge—alone and handcuffed together in the back of pick-up truck—being hauled off to jail, surrounded by a mocking and jeering crowd. We will hold their image in our minds as we ride down Market Street, celebrating the one-year anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s overturning DOMA and Prop 8, this past year’s historic string of marriage equality victories, and the wonderful degree of freedom we have attained in San Francisco.
We must create global collaboration and community to truly color the world with rainbow pride. Perhaps no country speaks better of the potential of such collaboration than South Africa. In 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to gain marriage equality—before every other state in the United States except Massachusetts—thanks to specific sexual orientation protection in their constitution. Two years ago, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised the South African Constitution—a true product of international collaboration—as “a fundamental instrument of government that embrace(s) basic human rights,” and calling it “a great piece of work that was done.” This year’s Pride celebrations remind us that we have much more great work to do together.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, June 26, 2014: http://sfbaytimes.com/color-our-world-with-rainbow-pride/ A photo of Gaffney and Lewis also served as the cover for that issue.
At the age of 81, Edie Windsor did something that would give pause to most of us who are decades younger — she took on the federal government over its refusal, for estate tax purposes, to recognize her marriage to (and 40+ year relationship with) Thea Spyer. Against the wishes and advice of most of the major LGBTQ organizations, but with the encouragement of MEUSA and a few of its members, she charged straight ahead. "They don’t know what they’re talking about,” Windsor recalls thinking of the chorus of voices concerned about the preparedness of the US Supreme Court to strike down the discriminatory statute known by the misnomer the “Defense of Marriage Act.” "There is no wrong time for justice. if you’re gonna go for it, go for it,” says Windsor. To hear more of her story, watch her interview with former MEUSA president Cathy Marino-Thomas. What follows is the first part of a multi-part interview.
Over the course of the marriage equality movement, one key thing we’ve learned in state after state is that sharing our stories with others is critical. The single most powerful way to bring people to support civil marriage equality is by making the issue personal.
Marriage Equality USA recently launched “Getting to ‘I DO’: Our Journeys to Marriage Equality,” a collaborative project aimed at collecting and sharing a wide range of multimedia-rich stories about relationships, family, marriage, advocacy, and equality.
Ted shares, for example, the bittersweet story of how marriage equality came too late for him and Jack, his partner of more than 25 years. In 2009, Jack was diagnosed with cancer. Just days after a marriage equality lobby day in Albany that same year, Jack died. When the freedom to marry finally came to New York two years later, Ted—an ordained, former minister—noted his joy at having “the privilege of joining together the lives of two loving persons,” even though he and his own “beloved” were denied that opportunity.
Sveta shares her journey to receiving her marriage-based green card last year. She writes about a “surreal” interview with USCIS in 2010. “Why can’t you just go to Russia?” an immigration officer asked her, after she explained, “I would be in danger as a member of a persecuted minority, if I were to be separated from my U.S. citizen partner of over a decade and deported back to Kazakhstan.” She continued, recalling the incident: “My wife was in the same room, but was not allowed to speak…I was asked to strike out her name and information as my spouse from my application for asylum.” Sveta concluded, “The Defense of Marriage Act rendered us legal strangers.”
Such stories are as varied and unique as the LGBT community. Many of the “Getting to ‘I DO’” stories focus on the joy of marriage itself, or how the authors felt the day their states finally recognized the freedom to marry.
We also have touching stories from allies, like Reenie, an interfaith minister who writes about how a burgeoning friendship with a lesbian seminary classmate led to advocating for “same sex couples in their quest to be together.” Roger, a former Marine, shared a deeply personal story about his journey to support full equality for same-sex couples, and his regret that it took him so long to do so. Roger writes, “We don’t need to look backward for a chance to stand up for principles. Life isn’t about always being right—I was wrong for a long time—but about learning from mistakes and making amends.”
Every story is unique, and we never know which story will resonate with someone who is still unsure about marriage equality. By sharing your story today, you may be the change that helps someone finally get to “I do.” Browse our collection of “Getting to ‘I DO’” stories, and then please share your own journey to “I DO” with us.
By Thom Watson, MEUSA Social Media Manager and Project Lead, Getting to "I DO"
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, May 29, 2014: http://sfbaytimes.com/getting-to-i-do-sharing-stories-to-change-hearts-and-minds/
Last month in Denver, Jolene Mewing attended the Tenth Circuit's oral arguments for Kitchen v. Herbert, the Utah marriage equality case. Jolene gives us her first-person perspective on the hearing from her seat inside the courtroom.
The week leading up to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ hearing in the Kitchen v. Herbert case was full of excitement and anxiety. My wife and I attended a send-off rally for the plaintiffs to show the community is behind them and supports everything they have done for all of us.
Once I reached Denver, it was time to head to a rally on the steps of the Byron White United States Courthouse, where the 10th Circuit Court is located. The press was already there in full force garnering details and background information they could work into their stories. The weather was beautiful and perfect.
The rally was held the night prior to the case being heard beyond the doors to this illustrious building. The rally was put on by Why Marriage Matters Colorado. The energy level was high as a DJ cranked out music that was positive and charged. Guest speakers empowered the crowd, which started to grow in numbers.
Thursday morning (10 April 2014) I arrived at the courthouse early to ensure a place inside the actual courtroom. There was an overflow room, too; however, I had been handed number 42, which guaranteed a place inside the courtroom where history would be made.
The three judges presiding over the case, Carlos Lucero, Jerome Holmes, and Paul Kelly, loomed powerful over the courtroom. Their many years of experience was etched on each of their faces. I looked at them thinking the fate of marriage equality in Utah rests in their hands. I was nervous. The plaintiffs were sitting on a bench behind their attorneys; I could only wonder what they were feeling inside.
Peggy Tomsic commanded the room for the plaintiffs while Gene Schaerr represented the State of Utah. Both were to speak for 30 minutes each but were allotted more time due to interruptions by the judges throughout their statements.
Besides the extreme injustice of the case itself, what makes this case even more intolerable is the fact our family’s state income tax dollars are being used to pay for this case—our very own money is being used to fight against our right for marriage equality. That sickens me inside.
Once started, the courtroom was quiet except for those asking and answering the questions. Many times the judges spoke over the attorneys, cutting them off in mid-sentence. A few times, there was a little laughter, soon followed by the stark seriousness of the morning’s circumstance.
I sat in silence as I watched history happening in front of me. I was here to support the plaintiffs and to be part of something bigger than I could ever imagine. When I left the courtroom, my emotions were all over the place. The murmurs started as people were speculating which way the court would lean. In my heart, I know the judges will make the right decision. I also know that whatever way the 10th Circuit Court rules, there will be an appeal, which means more of our taxpayer dollars will be used to fight against the marriage of me to my wife.
I always felt I’d see marriage equality in my lifetime—I just didn’t think it would happen this quickly or that Utah would play such a pivotal role in marriage equality for all the states. After attending the hearing in Denver, I know marriage equality is closer than it’s ever been. I also know we are on the right side of history as we watch it unfold before us.
By Jolene Mewing, Local Organizer, Utah Regional Operating Committee, Marriage Equality USA.
As we celebrated LGBT couples getting married in Arkansas last weekend, we were packing our bags to head to my 30th college class reunion—attending together as a legally married couple. Like birthdays and anniversaries, reunions are occasions that mark the passage of time, and this one also serves as an important milestone along the road to marriage equality.
Five years ago, we were legally married in California, but we had seen marriage equality come and go as Prop 8 put a stop to the over 18,000 weddings of 2008. As we were planning whether we could attend my 25th college reunion, we needed to consult the court calendar—the California Supreme Court was about to rule on whether Prop 8 violated the state constitution in May of 2009. As it turned out, the court upheld Prop 8 right before the reunion, and I felt like I was heading to see my classmates with a heavy heart.
How wonderful it was to find that my classmates did not see this as discouraging news, but rather expressed their love, support and amazement at how far we’d come in so short a period of time. When I was in college in the 1980s, the idea of marriage equality was a distant dream, barely detectable on the radar. At the National March on Washington for LGBT Rights in 1987, the year John and I met, a symbolic wedding ceremony was held for hundreds of same-sex couples who wished to celebrate together. But, at the time, it felt more urgent to protest the US Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bowers v. Hardwick that upheld the constitutionality of laws that criminalized the physical expression of our love.
My freshman year boyfriend was a young architecture student, who would stay up late at night designing neighboring houses for us to live in discreetly, with a hidden passage connecting our two houses underground. It was a romantic image, but also a graphic rendering of the love that dare not speak its name.
Today, as I return to campus with my lawfully wedded spouse, I look forward to seeing a close friend who has been legally married in Massachusetts for ten years (bringing their two kids) and my junior year boyfriend who is now legally married in Connecticut. Another classmate will arrive with his newborn in tow as a newlywed after marrying his husband in New York the weekend before. And, who knows? We may find out that one of our classmates was among the first couples to have married in states as diverse as Arkansas, Michigan and Utah—or is waiting to wed in the many other states with lawsuits, one of which may well bring us marriage equality nationwide.
Even five years ago it would have been hard to believe we’d have come this far so fast. With our community working together to continue the momentum for full LGBT equality, we are hopeful that when we go to my 35th reunion, we will have nationwide marriage equality and so much more.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, May 15, 2014: http://sfbaytimes.com/reuninted/
Keep Informed on the Latest Marriage Equality Updates: May 13th Community Call Focuses on 4th Circuit Case
MEUSA invites you to join its national community call Tuesday, May 13, 9PM EDT. The conversation will focus on the latest developments in Virginia, where one of the more promising court challenges to a state constitutional amendment banning marriage equality is moving forward. Register for the call and we'll send you the dial-in information by email Tuesday morning.
And then there were three.
Just a few weeks ago, there were five states either without marriage equality or without an active lawsuit for equal marriage rights. But the pace of change continues to accelerate with the filing of a new case for equality in Georgia, and the announcement that South Dakota will be next.
That will leave only three states—Alaska, Montana, and North Dakota—without either marriage equality or marriage lawsuits for the time being. Yet even Alaska’s Supreme Court just issued a unanimous ruling in favor of equal treatment for same-sex couples under Alaskan tax law. In its decision, the Court articulated that “[m]any same-sex couples are … just as truly closely relat[ed] and closely connected as any married couple, in … providing the same level of love, commitment, and mutual economic and emotional support … and would … get married if they were not prohibited by law from doing so.”
You could almost hear former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin exclaiming, “I can see equality from my backyard!”
Equality is also in the backyard of the couples who are stepping forward to challenge South Dakota’s marriage ban. They are marrying in nearby marriage equality states—Minnesota (where the Mayor of Minneapolis is performing one of their weddings) and Iowa (which recently celebrated 5 years of marriage equality since the Iowa Supreme Court’s historic ruling in 2009)—and then challenging South Dakota’s refusal to recognize their marriages.
Ten years ago, during San Francisco’s Winter of Love that brought marriage licenses to over 4,000 same-sex couples in City Hall, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist famously accused San Francisco of igniting a “wildfire” that was “likely to spread through all 50 states.” With equality or active lawsuits in 47 states, Bill Frist’s prediction is coming to pass today. Even deep in the heart of Texas, equality is advancing in unexpected ways as another judge just ruled that a lesbian couple’s divorce case could proceed because the Texas ban on recognizing such unions was unconstitutional. And Bill Frist may have known best when he said, “Recent court rulings have created a legal domino effect.”
It’s interesting to read these words today knowing that the tide has turned. When Mike Huckabee recently addressed the topic of whether he was on the “wrong side of history,” he said, “I’m not against anybody; I’m really not. I’m not a hater. I’m not homophobic. I honestly don’t care what people do personally in their individual lives.” We’ll let you decide whether he doth protest too much. While Gavin Newsom’s comment “whether you like it or not” may not have been well-timed, he did point out a conundrum for those who are against the freedom to marry: seeing historic change happening before their eyes, they have a choice to rage against it, or to embrace our common humanity. We know which side we’d rather be on.
In the meantime, the countdown to equality nationwide continues.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, May 1, 2014: http://sfbaytimes.com/countdown-to-equality/
The State of Utah’s stunning admissions in last week’s oral argument before the Tenth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals and in briefs filed with the court make one thing abundantly clear: the state should drop its appeal of the federal district court’s ruling last December in favor of marriage equality. We’ll never forget the joy we felt seeing over a thousand LGBT couples dash to their local clerk’s offices in Salt Lake City and other Utah environs during the winter 2013 holiday season before the district court’s order was stayed. It’s time for those weddings to begin again.
The State of Utah put forth many baseless, unpersuasive, and convoluted arguments before the court. The one that perhaps struck us most was the State’s concession that children of same-sex parents would likely be better off if their parents were able to be married. But instead of caring for those children by embracing the right of LGBT couples to marry, the State callously said that their “principal concern” in the case is “the children of heterosexual parents,” leaving the children of LGBT parents in the dust. When questioned at oral argument, Utah’s counsel matter-of-factly wrote off the needs of children of same-sex couples by saying that laws involve “tradeoffs.” Not only does their argument suggest a remarkable lack of human empathy, but it is also unsound as a matter of law.
One thing that rings loud and clear from last summer’s United States Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor striking down section 3 of DOMA is that Justice Kennedy and the majority of the Supreme Court are very concerned about the effects that discriminatory marriage laws have on LGBT families, especially the children on LGBT parents. The Court held that DOMA “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples….mak[ing] it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.” Further, the Court stated that “DOMA instructs … all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others.”
The saddest aspect of Utah’s legal argument is that it fails to recognize that marriage equality is not a zero-sum game. Ending the exclusion of LGBT couples from marriage robs no one else of their freedom to marry. Far from hurting anyone else, protecting and caring for kids of LGBT parents benefits everyone, not just LGBT families. Recognizing our common humanity lies at the heart of the marriage equality movement. In an attempt to appear compassionate, Utah wrote in its brief that it “respects and values [LGBT] citizens and their children as … equal before the law ….” If that’s the case, we urge the State of Utah to drop its appeal, end the marriage ban, and pass legislation to make full LGBT equality a reality in Utah.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, April 17, 2014: http://sfbaytimes.com/utah-should-drop-its-appeal-and-let-the-salt-lake-city-weddings-begin-again/