By Ryan M. Leach
June 26, 2016, marks the first anniversary of the Supreme Court of the United States handing down their historic ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges—the decision that deemed bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional throughout the United States. Marriage, as explained by many a conservative, is deeply rooted in tradition. It is traditional to give the gift of paper on your first anniversary, and in the first year since the ruling, same-sex couples everywhere have finally been given the only piece of paper that really counts—their marriage license.
Marriage equality is certainly not the end of the struggle for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. We are still fighting for our rights to live free from discrimination, to not be banned from certain restrooms, to access public services without literally causing a federal case. But marriage was big. It still is. The right to marry legally finally validated what the LGBT community has known for so long: that their relationships are the same as relationships everywhere. Gay and lesbian couples are just as loving (or boring, or argumentative, or exciting, or terrible) as any other couple. There are bride- and groom-zillas. There are terrible dresses and weird tuxedos. All of the things we know about relationships and marriages are the same—just gayer.
June 26 is a significant day for the LGBT community for many reasons. It marks the day in 2013 when the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned by the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, thus allowing federal agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states that allowed them.
June 26 marks the day in 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional in the case of Lawrence v. Texas.
More importantly, the last weekend in June is traditionally when we celebrate the June 28, 1969, anniversary of the Stonewall Riots—the event that many say sparked the modern gay-rights movement.
The fight for LGBT civil rights had its ups and downs before and after Stonewall, and we certainly have a long way to go to achieve full equality under the law. But marriage was a major victory in this storied sector of American History, and this first anniversary of marriage equality throughout the nation is one that will never be forgotten.
“I remember I got the news around 9 a.m. when I had just taken the bench,” says 151st Civil District Court Judge Mike Engelhart. “We knew that the decision was going to be coming down that day, because I think it might have been the last day of the session. We thought it was going to be in favor of marriage equality, and it was. I was so excited. Then the county clerk tried to stall the issuance of those licenses. I asked my coordinator to keep an eye on things and let me know what was going on. I knew there would be a lot of couples racing to the courthouse who could finally get married.”
In the hours following the decision, County Clerk Stan Stanart refused to issue marriage licenses, a major responsibility of that elected role. Stanart claimed that he could not issue licenses until he received new forms from the state that did not include the gender markers of “male” and “female.” You may have heard of another more infamous county clerk in Kentucky by the name of Kim Davis. “It really broke my heart to see the county clerk still denying marriage licenses to people. As a judge it is our responsibility to follow the law and to treat people with equality, dignity and respect,” says 125th Civil District Judge Kyle Carter.
Because the clerk initially failed to do his job, same-sex couples continued to face unlawful discrimination until County Attorney Vince Ryan intervened. In a letter issued to Stanart shortly after the ruling, Ryan stated, “In light of the opinion issued today in the case of Obergfell vs. Hodges et al, our opinion is that the law requires [that] you immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to all qualified applicants without regard to gender.” Ryan was prepared to file a suit compelling Stanart to begin issuing licenses. Stanart eventually announced that he would begin issuing them at 3 p.m., regardless of the forms he had stated he needed only a few hours before. It was Judge Carter who was able to perform the first legal same-sex marriage in Harris County shortly after 3 p.m. He and other judges waived the 72-hour waiting period required under Texas law due to the special circumstances. “I was so thankful to have the opportunity to perform that ceremony,” says Carter. “I think I performed nine ceremonies that day. The first couple was a gay couple, the second a lesbian couple, and then a couple that included a transgender woman who married her husband.”
Judges Carter and Engelhart performed almost 20 marriages that day. Throughout the county, other judges supportive of equality also began performing ceremonies, like presiding judge for the Houston Municipal Courts, Barbara Hartle. Hartle also just happens to be a lesbian. “I am going to be 58 this year, and I have been out since I was 21,” she says. “This is truly something I never thought I would see happen.”
At Hartle’s directive, the municipal courts advertised on their website that they would perform ceremonies for same-sex couples. Since the Obergefell decision, Hartle guesses that they have performed over 200 same-sex ceremonies since June. “It is interesting, when I perform these ceremonies, I always ask how long the couple has known each other, and straight couples usually say about six months, but consistently with gay couples they say 15, 20, 30 years,” Hartle says. “It isn’t hard to guess which of these couples has a better chance at staying together.”
Hartle continues, “Pretty much all of the judges at the municipal courthouse are willing to perform same-sex ceremonies. We do have a few judges who have stopped doing ceremonies based on their religious objection, but that’s fine. That’s their right.”
Under Texas law, a judge is not required to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples as long as they refrain from performing marriage ceremonies entirely. Several justices of the peace have also discontinued performing wedding ceremonies in their courts since the ruling. However, judges like Justice of the Peace Dale Gorczynski, a long-time and vocal supporter of marriage equality, welcomes same-sex couples to come to his courtroom. Judge Gorczynski has served as justice of the peace for decades after also serving as a city council member. He will be retiring at the end of this term.
The year since the decision has not been without controversy. Many politicians in Texas and throughout the U.S. continue to fight against it. But public opinion has slowly but steadily moved in favor of LGBT rights. In response, opponents to equality have begun to focus on creating other nonexistent threats like “men in women’s bathrooms” and cake-makers being forced to bake same-sex “sin” cakes. All of these “monsters” would be terrifying if they were, in fact, real. LGBT Texans are gearing up for a fight when the legislature reconvenes in 2017, preparing for what promises to be the most anti-LGBT legislative session in Texas history. Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick have already vowed to support and pass legislation that would effectively discriminate against the LGBT community and others.
The backlash to marriage equality was to be expected. In response to other landmark rulings like Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation, new discriminatory laws popped up in states throughout the South. For some, the concept of “equality for everyone” can feel like a loss of liberty for them. In reality it is the loss of their privilege at the expense of progress. America doesn’t operate on privilege. Privilege is the byproduct of a prolonged imbalance of power and opportunity. It may feel comfortable, but it doesn’t make it right. America has always been about progress and about breaking free from the chains of oppression, whether they are imposed by our government or our neighbor. And freedom, once achieved, must also be preserved and protected. The fight continues. That’s what America is actually about.
Happy first anniversary, marriage equality! Look, I got you some paper!
Ryan Leach is a community activist, lawyer, professor, writer, and humorist. You can email him at [email protected].