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Houston Couple Waits to Marry

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Not going to the chapel: Dustin Rynders (l) and Michael Chou look forward to the day when they can use their wedding cake topper. Photo by Brandon Wolf

Partners for seven years, they still don’t have marriage equality
by Brandon Wolf

They’ve got the cake topper—they’ve got the rings—they’ve got the wedding venue. The one thing that Dustin Rynders and Michael Chou don’t have is marriage equality.

Rynders and Chou first met in October 2003, at the Diedrich Coffee Shop on Westheimer near Shepherd. Both first-year students—Rynders in law school and Chou in medical school—they used the coffee shop to study. One day a mutual friend introduced them.

They were then invited as part of a larger group to a dance party. Later that night they coupled off. “And we’ve been together ever since,” smiles Rynders.

A Long-distance Relationship Didn’t Change Their Love

By 2005, Chou had been matched to Northwestern University in Chicago, and Rynders had two years of law school left in Houston. They made it a point to be together at least once a month, with each one flying in the opposite direction every other month.

In 2007, Chou learned that he had a three-year allergy fellowship in North Carolina. The thought of three more years of long-distance love drove them to Bailey Banks & Biddle Jewelers in the Galleria. “I got down on my knee and asked Mike to be my partner,” says Rynders.   “Then I asked him to do the same.”

“I loved it when that ring was placed on my finger—it symbolizes our commitment to each other,” Rynders says. “I’ve never taken it off.” Chou nods his head in agreement.

In July of 2010, Chou was finally back in Houston, and the two decided to buy a beautiful four-story townhome just one block north of Rudyard’s on Waugh Drive. Ironically, Ryn-
ders had to leave for Austin to work the rest of the legislative session. So it was well into 2010 before the couple got to see each other on a day-to-day basis, after nearly five years of a long-distance relationship.

Today, they are happy in their new townhouse. “We may have our home paid for, though, before we get the right to marry in Texas,” says Rynders.

“Our walls are rather empty,” he notes. “We’re buying pieces of art one at a time.” One current piece of art on their walls is bound to cause a double-take: an original pencil sketch by John Lennon—a fanciful image of himself walking hand-in-hand with Yoko, who is wearing a mini-skirt, boots, and a huge hat.

Working to Achieve Marriage Equality

Rynders and Chou joined Houston’s Foundation for Family and Marriage Equality. The group keeps current with the latest news about marriage equality, and works to constantly spread the news with a large e-mail list.

Education is a big component of their efforts—especially at Houston’s annual Pride Festival. Their booth helps gay couples understand the importance of preparing the proper legal documents to ensure that they each have the primary responsibility for health decisions, and to protect themselves financially.

“Since we don’t have marriage equality in Texas,” says Rynders, “we currently work to pro- tect gay couples by helping them understand the legal aspects of being a couple. Still, it’s a poor substitute for the hundreds of rights that heterosexual couples have.”

Each year during Valentine’s week, the Foundation collaborates with National Freedom to Marry Week. On February 10, 2011, an educational discussion will be held—a “Political, Religious, and Legal Panel on the Current Status of the LGBT Rights Movement.” “We hope to get to know more new people as they attend the public events,” Rynders says.

On February 13, a large commitment service will be held at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church. Officiants from numerous denominations will take part in this large group ceremony. Rynders and Chou have participated twice in the past.

“Couples walk down the aisle in pairs, as their names are read, and the time they have been partners,” says Chou. “There is a water ceremony, a lighting of the candle, words to couples on marriage and home, musical selections, and then the vows, rings, and a blessing. After the ceremony, there is a reception with cake and punch, picture-taking, and dancing.”

“One year we even had a bachelor/bachelorette party the night before the ceremony,” Rynders laughs. “For some people, the ceremony is a demonstration. But for others, it is a very emotional experience, because they’ve lived together so long without ever experiencing a public validation of their relationship.”

On February 14, the organization will sponsor its annual demonstration at the county clerk’s office. Participants will meet at City Hall and march to the clerk’s office. One by one, selected couples go before a clerk and request a marriage license. “Each year they have one especially pleasant clerk who always listens and then explains that she can’t issue the license because of the laws of the State of Texas,” says Rynders. “Even though they know they won’t get the license when they go in, many people still walk out looking very hurt.”

The Marriage Inequities for Gays

Rynders remembers vividly the 2006 Texas proposition that amended the state constitution and banned gay marriage. “I walked door to door, working against the amendment.”

“Despite the fact that a couple has all their legal documents in order, nothing can be done to counter the current federal codes that discriminate against gay couples regarding Social Security benefits, inheritance benefits, gift taxes, and immigration sponsorships.”

Chou mentions the recent action by the Obama administration to ensure that gay couples are treated with equality at any health care facility that receives Medicare or Medicaid funds. “However,” he adds, “if a couple doesn’t have a signed and notarized Medical Power of Attorney, the Obama regulation won’t help them much.”

“What many hospitals are faced with is the federal legislation that places a great responsibility on the hospitals to protect patient privacy. Without the proper Medical Power of Attorney, they have to limit access to the patient, by law. If they don’t, they could face federal fines. The Obama administration’s directive at least protects those with the proper legal documents. That’s been a problem in the past. The day he signed the order, President Obama called Janice Langbehn who was denied access to her dying partner Lisa Pond, despite having a valid Medical Power of Attorney.”

Despite the lack of Texas legislation, Rynders is optimistic. “I think it may come down from the Supreme Court,” he says, “and perhaps it will be the Proposition 8 lawsuit.” He points to two important legislative wins as signs of progress—the federal hate crimes law and the recent repeal of the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.

What Marriage Means to Them

“We want to adopt children,” says Rynders, “so marriage is very important because it [signifies that] our relationship is solid enough to raise children.

Life is a bit more complicated for a gay couple who wants to gain the protections heterosexuals have. “Our townhouse and both cars are titled in both our names,” says Rynders. “Our banking accounts are set up as “joint tenants with right of survivorship.” And we have life insurance policies on each other.”

“We’ve been very lucky to have supportive families,” say both men. “And both our parents have had successful marriages—so we’re not afraid to make long-term commitments to each other.”

Looking ahead to the day they can get married, the two men have only one difference of opinion—Chou wants a small wedding on the rooftop of the Alden Hotel, and Rynders wants a larger wedding. By the time marriage equality comes to Texas, they may have resolved that issue.

“I think perhaps my generation was the first one that really got to think about gay marriage as a relationship option, right from childhood,” says Rynders. “I always knew I wanted to marry a doctor!” When marriage equality comes to Texas, he will finally be able to fulfill that dream.

Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

_____________________________

‘Our government does not recognize our relationships or our rights!’

With that passionate rallying cry, Freedom to Marry is celebrating love during the Valentine holiday season in a non-traditional way. Houston’s social justice organization committed to equality for families headed by LGBT couples, the group presents a series of events each February focused on the inequality faced by those families every day.

Founded in 2002 by Houston attorney Jerry Simoneaux and his partner Christopher Bown, the group pledges to continue its efforts “until all GLBT people are allowed to love freely, protect their families, and share the same civil rights, protections, and dignity afforded by marriage.” For more information on Freedom to Marry, log on to familyequality.org. Nancy Ford

February 10, 6:30 p.m.: Political, Religious, Legal Panel on Current Status of the LGBT Rights Movement with Professor Sophia Mrouri (Lonestar College), Professor Jim Paulsen (South Texas College of Law), and Rev. Harry Knox (Resurrection MCC). GLBT Cultural Center, 401 Branard St.

February 10, 8 p.m.: Happy Hour Kickoff to National Freedom to Marry Week. Guava Lamp, 570 Waugh Dr.

February 13, 1:30 p.m.: Texas’ Big Gay Wedding Celebration and Protest, followed by a wedding reception. To be married in the ceremony, register at familymarriageequality.org. Resurrection MCC, 2025 W. 11th St.

February 14, 11:30 a.m.: Valentine’s Day Marriage License Protest and March to City Hall. Same-sex couples who wish to request marriage licenses at the Harris County Clerk’s Office may register at familymarriageequality.org. Non-marriage-minded supporters are welcome to participate with signs of protest and encouragement. 201 Caroline St.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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