Reflections on same-sex marriage after one year of being legal in Pennsylvania

Many said it couldn’t be done. A place where religion and politics tended to be more conservative would never accept same-sex marriage as legal. But Ireland did just that in late May in a surprisingly overwhelming majority.

Erie’s LGBT community can understand the surprise after marking the anniversary of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania. It is also a place where religion and politics tended to be more conservative.

“We just figured that Pennsylvania would bring up the rear of all of the states because of Pennsylvania politics,” said Shari Gross, who married her longtime partner, Judy Zurinski, in Findley Lake, N.Y., in 2013 before the Pennsylvania ruling.

Then-Gov. Tom Corbett previously said that he believed in marriage being only between a man and a woman. When a federal judge in Harrisburg struck down the ban on May 20, 2014, Corbett declined to pursue further measures to overturn the decision. And with that, same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania.

“There was pride we felt for Pennsylvania,” Zurinski said. “We wanted to be legally recognized in Pennsylvania. It really felt good that the state where I work and where I reside recognized our marriage. It. Just. Felt. Good!”

Gross and Zurinski were originally a part of the first attempt to allow same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania. In 2013, Montgomery County started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples without a state ruling. The two decided to make the nearly seven-hour drive to apply for their own license, before a Commonwealth Court judged ordered the county to halt the process after 170 licenses were issued.

“We wanted to stand up and be counted. And let people know that people in Pennsylvania want the right to be married,” Gross said.

Montgomery County never issued their marriage license, and the couple never heard what happened to their application. Instead, they wed in New York state, where such unions were recognized after a judge ruled that New York’s original ban was unconstitutional. The newlyweds returned to their home state, where their new marriage was not recognized as legal.

At the same time, though, Pennsylvanians were supporting the idea of same-sex marriage in growing numbers. Poll after poll, demonstrated people approved of the concept. Economic models also showed the major positive economic impact same-sex marriage would have on the economy.

While it has been legal for a year, it doesn’t mean that everyone is accepting of it, or that gay couples still feel comfortable to be completely open about getting married.

Michelle and Jennifer (last names withheld by request) married on May 9, 2015, taking advantage of their marriage being legally recognized in Pennsylvania. However, despite the legal protection under the law, the couple still approached the day with some trepidation.

“When beginning this process, we were still hesitant concerning the individual responses while searching for a location for the wedding and reception,” Michelle said. “Even the responses of our families were unknown, as the topic was not discussed in the past.”

Gross and Zurinski understand the feeling of hesitation.

“As a young adult, you did not tell anybody you were gay,” Gross said. “So the thought that you could have a legal marriage — that is public and acknowledged — was something you had to ‘try on for a while’ and be comfortable with after so many years of protecting yourself and your loved ones.”

Both couples say the marriage ceremony was important — not because it changed the love they had for each other, but for protecting their rights as a couple.

“Our recent marriage really guarantees us the long-term protection of other married couples as far as rights and privileges. Our relationship has always been healthy and strong. With the legalization of same-sex marriage, we are able to continue to celebrate our lives as a couple,” Michelle said.

It means when there is a death, the surviving spouse can inherit property without paying taxes and the right to visit a spouse in the hospital that cannot be denied by other members of the family. These protections are part of the “civil union” aspect of same-sex marriage argument. Some people supported fairness under the law but rejected the use of the word “marriage” for same-sex partnerships. However, the word “marriage” is important to gay people.

“Even though we have not changed, when we say that word to other people, they take us more seriously, “ Zurinski said.

“I was on the fence on civil unions verses marriage,” Gross said. “I think the fact of being married is something everyone understands, knows what it means, it does have tremendous meaning. It is significant. There is no need to make it different.”

Amber and Ellen Chipoletti agree. They met in 2007, started dating in 2009 and got married in 2012 in Jamestown, N.Y. They will celebrate their third anniversary and advise others who want to marry to plan ahead. “It’s a process,” Ellen Chipoletti said. The couple are happy that same-sex couples can now marry in Pennsylvania but noted that couples who live in other states must still travel great distances to legally unite in marriage. “We feel pretty lucky we only had to go to Jamestown,” Amber Chipoletti said.

The next hurdle for marriage equality rests in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to make a decision this month. Will the justices strike down the Defense of Marriage Act? The couples interviewed for this story are hopeful but also understand that if same-sex marriage becomes legal in all 50 states, it won’t mean an end to the prejudice and discrimination they sometimes experience. Michelle referred to it as still a “polarizing topic” in our society. Gross and Zurinski know there are places in the United States where they are not welcomed — law or no law.

“There still will be pockets of prejudice that will probably never go away,” Zurinski said. “And that’s OK, as long as we have our absolute legal rights.”

The unexpected and major turnaround in Ireland toward same-sex marriage also gives them encouragement for the same acceptance in their own county.

One day, there is a hope that their marriages won’t be referred to as a “same-sex” marriage or a “gay” marriage but just as a “marriage.”

Originally published at on June 7, 2015.