By David Goldberg
It seems like eons ago when President George W. Bush proclaimed in 2004 that “the union of a man and a woman is the most enduring human institution, honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith.” Not so fast, Mr. President. Months after his declaration, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, and in the decade since, the country’s LGBT identity has skyrocketed to stunning prominence.
Today, we live in a nation where 61 percent of Americans—including our president and vice president—support our right to marry, according to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, and the law of the land finally allows for it.
After hearing arguments in late April in Obergefell vs. Hodges, the Supreme Court justices struck down the power of states to limit marriage to a union between one man and one woman on June 26. Obergefell consolidated six cases and 32 plaintiffs who were seeking the right to marry and to have out-of-state marriages recognized in Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee, and Ohio. This ruling breaks the stubborn backs of the 14 holdout states that would not legalize same-sex marriage, including Texas.
Justice Kennedy behaved as predicted when he broke the tie and joined left-leaning justices Kagan, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg in voting that same-sex couples must be entitled to equal protection under the Constitution—narrowly outvoting Justices Alito, Thomas, Scalia, and Roberts. While this ruling will seem to have been certain in hindsight, in reality it came frighteningly close.
Last month, the Pew Research Center released poll data indicating that 71 percent of Americans viewed same-sex marriage legalization as an inevitability. It often seems like the other 29 percent are Texas lawmakers. Although LGBT Houstonians are supported by Mayor Annise Parker—herself an out and affirming lesbian—many Texas officials see their prejudice as a point of pride.
In June, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill that gives Texas clergy members the right to refuse to officiate marriages that violate their religious beliefs—a prerogative they already had. Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart recently redesigned marriage forms with distinctively gendered male and female profiles, which means that his office will have quite a bit of paperwork to do in the weeks to come. While it’s probable that sworn enemies to the cause, such as Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, will only step up the intensity of their vitriolic hatemongering, same-sex couples now have the chance to catch up on what is rightfully theirs, and LGBT activists can move onto more pressing matters.
Many couples have been urgently waiting for these frivolous bans to become history so that they can move on with their lives. According to the Government Accountability Office, couples are granted 1,138 rights and protections upon marriage—and for approximately 46,401 LGBT couples in Texas, the journey toward gaining that recognition has been marked with compromise and conflict. With the 2013 repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Supreme Court granted same-sex couples federal benefits, but couples in restrictive states like Texas had still lacked benefits related to Social Security, veterans programs, state taxes, estate planning and inheritance, hospital rights, and immigration.
A popular point among same-sex opponents, and one invoked by the conservative justices during the Obergefell oral arguments, is that gay marriage is supposedly unknown in human history. As same-sex couples make their marriages official throughout the country, their personal histories of enduring love, legal battles, family discourse, and fierce activism will become commonly known, folding into the ongoing national narrative. OutSmart spoke with five Houston couples about their journeys to individual recognition, and how this game-changer will affect them.
Complications and Compromises
Making gay matrimony kosher, as it were, will symbolically change the status of same-sex couples throughout the nation. But for couples with children, the arrival of marriage-conferred parental rights couldn’t come soon enough.
Marvin Mendoza and Brandon Lyssy tied the knot in New York City in 2012. While their 13-year-old son “prefers not to think about marriage in any form,” as Lyssy says, his understanding of his parents differs from how the state views them. Until now, Mendoza has had limited rights to his stepson. “In my absence, school records or medical release forms can’t be signed by Marvin—even a field-trip permission slip,” Lyssy says. “I know it may sound minor, but without [recognition] we were forced to consider moving to a state that does recognize our marriage and protects our rights as parents fully.” Now, Mendoza’s commitment to parenting can be evident on paper, where it should matter the least.
John Nechman met Ricardo Ruiz in Houston in 1995. Nechman, who is Korean/European, serenaded Ruiz, who is Colombian, with Spanish poetry. Upon returning from a trip to Costa Rica together, Ruiz was nearly barred from reentering the country. “He had a perfectly valid visa and had never had trouble coming into the country before,” Nechman says. “The officers would not let me be with him while they questioned him for over an hour, mostly trying to get him to admit that he was not just coming in to attend school at the University of Houston, but because he intended to stay together with me.”
This experience led Nechman to become active in the LGBT legal arena, and he now is a partner at Katine & Nechman, L.L.P., a firm known for representing LGBT and HIV-affected clients. But at the time, Nechman felt powerless. Eventually, Ruiz obtained a teaching certificate that allowed him to stay in Houston, and over time he made it to full citizenship. “It took us 14 years and probably $100,000 in school and legal fees,” Nechman says. “If American laws had been fair, I could have sponsored Richi for residence when we met in 1996, and he would have become a citizen before the millennium’s end.”
For couples less educated in immigration law, these bureaucratic hurdles were often impossible to overcome. Even when the legal pitfalls could be predicted, they still required legal acumen—not to mention cash—to prepare for. And without the guaranteed rights to make decisions for their partners, authorize disposition of remains, and to be listed as a survivor, same-sex spouses were often left abandoned and invalidated after a medical crisis. Many couples took steps to protect themselves, but not everyone comes so prepared.
Fran and Kim Watson held a private commitment ceremony in 2004 and legally tied the knot in New York in 2014. Fortunately, Fran is a wills and probate attorney. “We know how to create those protections so we are with one another through a medical situation,” Fran says. “We are grateful we have not had to deal with this. We have seen what happens when that layer of stress is added to the situation. Both of us have had surgery, and we were both able to support each other in the [hospital].”
Mendoza and Lyssy took as many steps as they could to prepare for worst-case scenarios. “We wanted to be sure that we are always regarded as each other’s spouse and given all rights and privileges that come with that,” Lyssy says. “If anyone’s going to be asked to cut off life support for my husband, it’s gonna be me.” Mendoza adds, “I’m hoping that the Supreme Court decision allows us to shred those docs.”
Conservative lawmakers miss the irony that in burying same-sex marriage in red tape, they force gay couples to weigh all options, become better versed in marriage legalities, and really consider their decisions at every step of the way. Barred from jumping into the institution with the ease of their straight peers, same-sex couples have had to fight for and fully understand every threshold they’ve crossed. Marriage cannot be frivolous.
“It was the complications that originally initiated the marriage discussion between us and led us to tie the knot,” Mendoza says. “So in some regards, I’m grateful for those complications, because I learned a couple of big things from them: one, that marriage with my partner was something that I actually did want, and two, that no person or entity could ever come between the love and commitment we felt for each other as a family. That mindset has become our baseline for any difficult time that we go through.”
Will the legalization of gay marriage drastically change our culture, or is it simply the result of a societal shift years in the making? Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, has good reason to believe that Texas was ready, and the law just needed to catch up. “Attitudes about equal marriage are changing around us,” Mayor Parker says. “I fully believe that the majority of Texans have already made that shift in thinking, but because state law [had] not caught up with the societal change, a Supreme Court ruling had to happen in order to align Texas with the rest of the states.”
Some of the mayor’s fellow Texan lawmakers won’t see the transition as a done deal, but Parker’s wife, tax consultant Kathy Hubbard, argues that even if conservative Texans hold to their beliefs as they have in regards to interracial marriage and abortion, they’ll still be up against the surrounding dominant culture. “Codified prejudice, when outlawed, goes underground,” Hubbard says. “The Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage in 1967. Texas will get used to married couples who aren’t the same color and the opposite sex. A ‘critical mass’ in public awareness has been achieved. TV shows enjoyed by the masses have helped globally with LGBT public perception.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone about his groundbreaking series Transparent, actor Jeffrey Tambor shared his seven-year-old daughter’s reaction to his trans character. “She just turned to me and said, ‘Oh, I understand. Your character is happier as a woman,’” Tambor says in the interview. “There it is. From the mouths of babes.”
Those opposing marriage equality have always taken an asinine stand for children of LGBT couples, who are ostensibly exposed to all manner of havoc when raised in a home with two same-sex parents. In reality, these children don’t see the problem. “They think it is no big deal, and wonder why there is so much debate about it,” Mayor Parker says of her three children and godchild. “I believe that most people across America who are under the age of 30 agree with our kids. It does send a message to our children that we believe in marriage and permanent long-term relationships.”
Mendoza and Lyssy believe that their son has been exposed to enough positive examples of marriage to be able to discern which values really matter. “Our relationship has been normalized for him to the point that he doesn’t consider it out of the ordinary,” Lyssy says. “For us, it’s just about showing him that love and commitment can be found in many forms, as long as two people want to be committed to one another.”
Time for a renewal?
Now that Texas couples can marry, must they? Some couples see the chance to be married officially in the eyes of the state as an opportunity for a celebration in the light of day, while others feel that their previous ceremonies got the job done just fine. And after all the creative planning and travel arrangements that out-of-state weddings required, some couples want to keep their memories of their first weddings sacred.
Colt Keo-Meier, who identifies as a queer trans man, and his partner, Becca Keo-Meier, met in 2010 when they were both students in the psychology department at the University of Houston. In 2013, they became legally wed in California, then returned to Houston for the celebration. “Having our family and friends present to witness and celebrate our love and commitment was the most powerful moment we have ever experienced,” they share. “We do not plan to get married again in Houston.” Mayor Parker and Hubbard also feel satisfied. In January, they enjoyed their first wedding anniversary with a long weekend in Playa del Carmen.
After a private commitment ceremony, a holy union at their church, and a wedding in New York, Fran and Kim Watson are ecstatic about the legalization of marriage equality. However, that doesn’t mean they’re interested in reciting their vows for a fourth time. “After all these ceremonies, I do not think we will be getting married again,” Fran says. “We will be excited that our marriage will be recognized in the state where we were born, raised, and reside.”
Mendoza and Lyssy are weighing their options. “We’ve gone back and forth on whether or not we really want to have the big wedding, spend the money, go through the planning,” Lyssy says. “It’s still hard to say at this point, because we feel so confident that we did it in a way that was just right for us. A big celebration in Houston would [let more people know] that our marriage was recognized, with full legal effect, by all local, state, and national authorities. That would be a great reason to celebrate.”
As for Nechman and Ruiz, they’re ready to party. “We may wait till February 21, 2016—our 20th anniversary—to have a ceremony,” Nechman says. “It will be informal, but overwhelmingly joyous, with everyone we know invited to the shores of Buffalo Bayou in the shadows of downtown’s majestic skyline. I will do everything I can to get Ronnie Killen from Killen’s BBQ be the caterer.” Say what you will about the new law, but you can’t deny the effects it has on your social calendar.
The battles to come
As the campaign for recognition in 50 states has worn on and some conservative opponents have proven maddeningly obtuse, many LGBT activists have expressed frustration that we have neglected to rally the community around other pressing issues. Now, our collective focus can hone in on employment and housing discrimination, public perception of trans identity, rising HIV rates in communities of color, LGBT youth homelessness, and the fact that in spite of U.S. marriage equality, only 12 percent of countries on our planet allow same-sex marriage.
After years of activism, same-sex couples finally have a chance to celebrate. Then, it’s time to mobilize again. Although they can now enjoy matrimony with dignity, many same-sex couples are still under threat of persecution at their jobs. “What could happen when the happy couple goes back to work, or when an out married couple shows up to [their apartment building’s] annual tenant pool party?” Fran Watson says. “In many places, people can and are terminated for how they identify.”
Only 23 states have housing- and employment-protection laws in place. Last year’s Houston Equal Rights Ordinance gave Houstonians a fairer shot. “We’re pretty mobile people, so having nationwide employment and nondiscrimination protections is important to us,” Mendoza says. “Right now, if we were to consider moving to another state, the list of potential options would be pretty small. Having those protections across the country would open up other possibilities to us.”
Fran Watson hopes that the movement that so effectively pushed for same-sex marriage will stay focused on other protection laws. “It is changing, city by city, just like marriage equality. We just need to make sure all hands are on deck, because the opposition is fighting against nondiscrimination laws.”
With Caitlyn Jenner’s recent revelations and the prominence of series like Sense8, Transparent, and Orange Is the New Black, trans identity has taken 2015 by storm. But it’s just the beginning of the movement. According to an Injustice at Every Turn poll, 41 percent of trans people surveyed have attempted suicide, and trans people are four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000, as compared to the general population. Hopefully, the attention the trans movement is gaining can soon be put to productive use.
Nechman says that with new marriage laws, his and other LGBT-allied law firms will be expecting a greater emphasis on elder law, divorce, and estate planning, and that new focus can now be allotted to HIV-positive and LGBT asylum-seekers from countries that enforce death penalties and other oppressive punishments.
As Fran Watson says, “Marriage is only the tip of the iceberg.”
Change has come
For many Americans, this ruling won’t drastically alter the shape of life as they know it, because same-sex couples have already spent decades normalizing their love and making it a matter of fact. For the Watsons, it initially took their extended families time to get used to their identity as a couple. So now, 11 years later, it would almost seem bizarre to celebrate a relationship that is so ingrained and established.
“The impact is normalcy,” Watson says. “Our relationship is just like everyone else’s. It removes this taboo stigma and corrects misinformation. In our family, we are just as normal as the other couples. We work, we celebrate victories together, and we support one another through sorrow. For 11 years, we have consistently demonstrated this. Our legal marriage status does not change that.”
Mendoza looks forward to the new options and mobility that legalization provides him, but he can’t take for granted what he and his husband have spent years creating. “With marriage recognition, other living arrangements may be possible,” he says. “But the life we’ve been able to build together is pretty amazing, so I think we’ll stick with what we’ve got for a while.”
As for Lyssy, he’s excited to see how this final act of recognition will change his son’s experience. “One of our hopes is that kids growing up today don’t have to struggle with this as an issue at all once they reach adulthood,” he says. “We’ve watched our parents go through a journey of acceptance, and we are so proud that we can say we had all of their support when we got married. But our parents know it’s not been easy, and they all agree that watching our struggle has been hard. Hopefully by the time our son reaches an appropriate age to marry—like 40—he will know he’s free to choose whomever he wants without any conflict or struggle from government or other institutions.”
Now armed with the same freedom as their straight peers, same-sex couples have the luxury of forgetting the crippling legal blockades, bureaucratic nonsense, and oppressive laws that their predecessors had to face just to receive a fraction of the rights now available. The victory tastes red-hot today, but hopefully same-sex marriage will seem perfectly normal and downright familiar tomorrow. Just like any old married couple.