From This Day Forward
From the birth of a child to the death of a spouse, the stories behind the Supreme Court cases show why marriage is more than a piece of paper.
A birth certificate. An adoption form. A marriage license. A state identification card. A tax return. A medical authorization form. A home loan. A living will. A Social Security payment. A death certificate.
These are just some of the documents that populate our lives, marking key moments and allowing us to build and care for our families.
And yet, for too many same-sex couples in the United States, each of these documents becomes more complicated because of restrictive laws around the freedom to marry.
Of course, people don’t get married just so they can change these documents. Over and over while speaking with same-sex couples, you’ll hear a common refrain: “My marriage license is not just a piece of paper. It’s so much more than that.”
Marriage says “We are a family” like no other word can. It speaks to the values of family, self-sacrifice and makes an important public statement of commitment to one another.
Still the fact remains that the protections that come with marriage are critical elements of what make the institution so powerful. In ways large and small, these protections enable same-sex couples to care for their families and give them an equal opportunity to ensure their safety.
On April 28, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the freedom to marry in cases from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee that could end marriage discrimination nationwide. Thirteen states currently ban marriage for same-sex couples. The plaintiffs in the cases are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and attorneys from a variety of law firms. Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s Civil Rights Project Director, and Douglas Hallward-Driemier will argue the cases before the Supreme Court.
The personal stories of the plaintiffs in each of these cases — from the birth of their children to the death of their spouses — vividly show the critical importance of the protections that come with marriage. Through every phase of a couple’s life, marriage truly matters.
Read these families’ stories below, then take a moment to send them a note thanking them for their work to move marriage forward.
In so many ways, the couples represented in the cases before the U.S. Supreme Court are like any other couple: They met (some decades ago), they got to know each other’s family members, they began building their lives together. They celebrate anniversaries and birthdays and new jobs and small victories. Some have welcomed babies into their lives. Others have adopted children.
“We do exactly the same things as everyone else does,” Matthew Mansell, a plaintiff in the Tennessee marriage case with his husband Johno Espejo, told USA Today this year. “We teach our kids to ride bikes, we mow the lawn, we do laundry, we argue about money.” The Tennessee plaintiffs are represented by National Center for Lesbian Rights, Tennessee attorneys Abby Rubenfeld, Maureen Holland, and Regina Lambert; William Harbison and other attorneys from the law firm of Sherrard & Roe PLC; and Douglas Hallward-Driemeier and other attorneys from the law firm of Ropes & Gray LLP.
Altogether, these 16 plaintiffs have hundreds of years of commitment between them.
It’s telling that Kentucky plaintiffs Tammy Boyd and Kim Franklin, who have been together for nearly nine years, jokingly consider themselves newlyweds when compared to their co-plaintiffs Luke and Jim Meade-Barlowe, who are celebrating their 47th anniversary this year. The Kentucky plaintiffs are represented by Kentucky attorneys from Fauver Law Office and Clay Daniel Walton & Adams, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union.
Their lives are not political. And yet, because of state marriage bans, they are forced to fight to protect their families by standing up for the freedom to marry in their home states — and now, the entire country.
For same-sex couples living in states with anti-marriage laws, financial danger or harm is always a looming possibility. These families are all too aware that at any moment, something could happen to threaten the stability of their family.
Dr. Valeria Tanco and Dr. Sophy Jesty — who married in New York in 2011 and moved to the University of Tennessee for their work as professors of veterinary medicine — spoke about these fears while they were pregnant with their first child last year.
“If anything were to happen where I needed to stop working, then my insurance would be cut off,” Tanco said to Out and About Nashville. The women tried to enroll in a single health insurance plan to cover both of them and their baby, but because they work for the University of Tennessee, which participates in the state of Tennessee’s group health insurance plan, and because Tennessee does not respect their marriage, they were denied.
Thankfully, Tanco did not lose her insurance, and the women welcomed a beautiful baby into their lives in March 2014. But similar feelings of uncertainty plague the couple: They own their home together in Tennessee and have deeded the property to themselves. But, as the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ legal brief to the U.S. Supreme Court explains, “Because Tennessee law treats them as legal strangers, Drs. Tanco and Jesty lack the security of knowing whether Tennessee will in fact treat them as owning their marital home together as tenants by the entirety.”
Many of the financial protections of marriage are not simply “What-ifs.” For example, every year, same-sex couples in non-marriage states are confronted with the question of how to file their taxes. Tennessee marriage plaintiffs Ijpe DeKoe and Thom Kostura, for instance, are legally married. They can declare their federal taxes as a married couple. But when filing their state taxes, they must check “single” and file separately, a complicated mess that can incur steep additional costs and often require an expert accountant.
We don’t like to think about many of the situations for which marriage is undeniably, critically important. But the truth is that in moments of illness or uncertain health, the marriage bond — not just the emotional support of a partner but the legal tie to a spouse — is essential.
In the summer of 2013, Timothy Love and Larry Ysunza — plaintiffs in the Kentucky marriage case — experienced this for themselves. During a routine check-up, Tim’s doctor discovered two major blockages in his heart. She told him that they couldn’t even administer the perfunctory stress test on him, saying it was too risky and advising that he go directly to the hospital, where he was told he needed surgery.
Tim and Larry, who have been together for nearly three decades, didn’t have any paperwork authorizing Larry to make medical decisions for Tim, so over the next few days, they rushed to make sure everything was in order — medical power of attorney, and other related paperwork (all of which would not have been necessary if the men were able to marry in Kentucky).
“That’s when it hit us — here we are, and we had always thought about the day that we’d start having health concerns, but you don’t think that one day you’re going to be 55 years old and have heart issues. You just don’t think about things like that — and why should you have to?” Tim said. “You shouldn’t have to draw up all of this extra paperwork to be able to make decisions for your partner of more than 20 years.”
Many of the other plaintiffs whose marriage cases will be considered by the Supreme Court have also experienced health scares or ongoing care.
In 2012, Paul Campion was diagnosed with life-threatening cancer at a young age. He and his husband, Randy Johnson, panicked, knowing that their marriage was not recognized by their home state of Kentucky (where they’re plaintiffs in the Bourke v. Beshear case).
“We were faced with additional challenges on how to interact with a healthcare system that had the legal right to discriminate against us and to exclude me from decisions about Paul’s healthcare,” Randy wrote, explaining that if Paul’s health problems worsened, Randy would be left vulnerable.
Jim Obergefell understands the reality of that vulnerability all too well. In 2011, his partner of more than 20 years, John Arthur, was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a crippling neurological disease that led to John becoming reliant on a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair. Just two years after his diagnosis, John could not leave his bed.
“The person I love was physically falling apart. I was happy and privileged to be able to be there to help him. So, it’s — what else could I do?” Jim told BuzzFeed this year in a beautiful piece. “I had the great privilege of [taking care of John] full time as he was dying.”
In the summer of 2013, Jim and John knew that John was dying — and they knew that they wanted to get married and at last say “I do” before that happened. They chartered a medical plane, flew from their home in Cincinnati to an airport tarmac in Baltimore, Maryland, and were married, with John’s aunt presiding over the ceremony. It was short — a few minutes — and almost immediately after, they boarded the plane again and returned home. Watch a video from the ceremony here.
They learned shortly after returning that after John’s death, the marriage would not be recognized by the state of Ohio. His death certificate would reflect that he was “single,” with no mention of his marriage to his beloved Jim.
John died in October 2013, before a final order was issued in the case, and before he could see the case go to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and ultimately, the United States Supreme Court.
“I am a husband and I am a widower,” Jim said in the summer of 2014 at a rally for the freedom to marry in Ohio. “I am not willing to give up my right to be either. John matters. I matter. Our marriage matters.”
The freedom to marry also impacts same-sex couples seeking to expand their families since laws banning marriage sometimes complicate parental ties.
Same-sex couples who were imminently expecting the birth of children filed suit seeking an order declaring that upon the birth of their children, both spouses would be listed as parents on the child’s birth certificate.
These couples included the Henry-Rogers family, who said, “This is my son that she’s carrying. I don’t want to feel like a stepparent. We want both of us to be legally documented on his birth certificate so that he can be properly taken care of.”
These couples need the freedom to marry — and to be recognized as married — in order to fully provide and protect their children.
Michigan marriage plaintiffs Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer had a similar epiphany when they were driving with their three children in the winter of 2011. A truck, in attempting to pass another car, switched lanes, steering right for April and Jayne’s car.
“At the last second, he swerved off the road and veered into a field,” April told The New York Times this year. “I don’t think Jayne and I would have survived the impact. It was that moment, that realization, that we needed to get things in order.”
They tried to draw up paperwork to protect their children — they had three at the time and now have four — but realized that was impossible in Michigan, where same-sex couples cannot jointly adopt. Only one person in a same-sex relationship can legally adopt a child, and so for Jayne and April, each woman is the legal parent of two of their children. If anything were to happen to either partner, the responsibility for that partner’s children would be legally unestablished and open to challenge.
Their case is led by Michigan attorneys Carole M. Stanyar; Dana Nessel of Kessel Law; Kenneth Mogill of Mogill, Posner & Cohen; Wayne State University Law Professor Robert Sedler; and Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.
So, yes — a marriage license is a piece of paper. But as these couples show, it is so much more than that.
The refusal to issue (and respect) marriage licenses between same-sex couples is not simply a refusal to issue one piece of paper. It’s a heinous act by the state that forces same-sex couples to face complications and roadblocks at every stage in their lives together — the birth of their children, their decision to move to a different state, the death of a partner.
It’s time for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of the freedom to marry nationwide and to end marriage discrimination once and for all.