Gay Marriage in the Balance
Gay and lesbian couples in Arroyoland watch closely as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on same-sex marriage in California — and possibly the country.
By Kathleen Kelleher 02/01/2013
Like so many these days, the romantic connection between Jamilla Davis and Elizabeth Varellas began through an online dating service. They decided to meet for coffee. Love at first sight it was not.
“She was wearing these pants she had made herself, and they were splattered with paint,” Davis said of that first in-person date. “She thought they were really cool. I was thinking, this is going to be a quick date.” But when a homeless woman asked for cash, Varellas bought the woman dinner instead; she and Davis sat at a nearby table, respecting the woman’s space while gently asking her about her life. This simple act of humanity so touched Davis that she overlooked the quirky pants and took a chance on her date.
That was five years ago. Now Jamilla, 27, and Elizabeth, 35, share an Altadena abode with their dog, Bearrie, and Lulu, the guinea pig. They are registered domestic partners, each bearing the hyphenated last name of Davis-Varellas. Yet the dream is incomplete. The two women want to declare their love formally, to plan a beautiful wedding and marry with all the attendant decorum, ceremonial rites and frivolity: a dress, flowers, a cake and loved ones in attendance to celebrate and witness an official dedication of their love and commitment.
But like many same-sex couples, the women missed the five-month window when they could legally marry in California. (They had been seeing each other for only a year and weren’t ready for a permanent commitment when the state’s gay marriage ban kicked in.) About 18,000 same-sex couples did tie the knot when legalization of gay marriage took effect in June 2008, after the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had the right to wed under the state Constitution’s equal protection clause. That right was stripped away when Proposition 8 narrowly passed in November 2008. The same-sex marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional in 2012, twice — by the Federal District Court and then by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Prop. 8 supporters appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the country’s highest court has announced that it will hear arguments in late March. The court may affirm or reject a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in California — and possibly the whole country. The panel’s first task is to consider whether or not defenders of Prop. 8 have the legal standing to bring their appeal. If the court finds that Prop. 8 proponents have no legal standing to do so, then the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling will be vacated, but the Federal District Court ruling striking down the ban would likely stand, according to David C. Codell, Visiting Arnold D. Kassoy Senior Scholar of Law and Legal Director of The Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law.
The Supreme Court is also hearing a New York case challenging a portion of a federal law (called the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA) that requires the federal government to deny benefits to gay and lesbian couples married in states that allow such unions. There are 1,138 federal provisions governing benefits available to a married man and woman that same-sex spouses are denied. House Republican leaders last month pledged to spend up to $3 million to keep defending DOMA in court because the Obama administration dropped its defense on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court ruling will come down amidst a dramatic shift in public attitudes on same-sex marriage. Recent polls show a majority of Americans support gay marriage, and nine states plus the District of Columbia now permit it. President Obama called for gay rights in his second inaugural address — becoming the first president to do so. The New York Times urged the administration to double down on its support by filing a Supreme Court brief challenging the ban, rather than leave those decisions up to the states, which has been Obama’s policy.
“This is an historic moment in the movement for civil rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community,” said Codell. “The Supreme Court may use the pending cases to decide whether the federal government may discriminate against legally married same-sex couples, whether California and possibly other states must permit same-sex couples to marry and how closely courts throughout the country should scrutinize laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation. The court may not reach all of those issues, but its answers to any of those questions will be of enormous importance.”
Couples like Jamie Hebert and Alec Mapa of Highland Park, who married one month before Prop. 8 passed, appreciate the gravity of the latest development. Like many same-sex couples, married or not, they await the Supreme Court ruling with intense anticipation. Although their own marital status is secure, they are passionate activists working toward securing legal marriage for other same-sex couples. “I think if the Supreme Court does not rule on the side of marriage equality, then I will be very sad and I won’t feel like my marriage is valid in the state,” said Hebert, 35, a film producer who has been with Mapa for 10 years. The couple adopted a son, Zion, three years ago after their legal marriage in 2008, private wedding ceremony in 2006 and domestic partnership in 2005. Hebert says that he feels as though he married Mapa three times. “My marriage won’t feel different personally [if Prop. 8 is upheld] and even though I am official, it won’t feel equal or fair if all my LGBT sisters and brothers can’t marry too. I will feel much better about humanity if the court rules for marriage equality.”
Like Hebert and Mapa, Mark Arteaga and his partner, Bart Verry, had been together 11 years before legal marriage was even a possibility. Neither felt that they needed to formalize their love for each other to make it legitimate or real. But both men felt it was an important opportunity to become an essential part of gay civil rights history. For Arteaga, it was also the realization of a social ideal that he assumed was out of reach when he was a child. “I grew up feeling like I am never going to be married to someone I love,” said Arteaga, 40, a researcher at USC’s School of Social Work who is earning a master’s degree in public administration at the university. “We went on the first day in June when marriage licenses were available to get our license and got married on the 90th day [marriage licenses expired in 90 days]. It was a magical day. We were married in Laguna Beach at our favorite resort. Why are we denying that right and access to such an important cultural institution?”
If the court rules in favor of the ban, nothing will change about their marriage in the personal sense, said Arteaga. But the emotional impact will be equivalent to “being less equal in the eyes of the law,” he added.
For Verry, marrying Arteaga was a way to affirm and exercise the law as activists. “We never even talked about getting married,” said Verry, chief operating officer for AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA). “But when Prop. 8 became a reality, we agreed that this was something we needed to do — that it was an important thing to do for our LGBT brothers and sisters. I know a number of people who never thought that Prop. 8 would pass and are very disappointed they did not get married when they could legally.”
Pasadena’s All Saints Episcopal Church has been blessing same-sex marriages and civil unions since 1991, uniting 41 such couples before the ban passed. The church stopped signing state marriage licenses in protest. “For All Saints, we went out of the civil marriage business when Prop. 8 passed,” said Rev. Susan G. Russell, senior associate for communications, who has been presiding over same-sex unions for the past 15 years. “We won’t sign marriage licenses as agents of the state for some couples until we can do it for all couples. We are looking forward to the Supreme Court doing the right thing and restoring equal protection under the law. We still do the sacramental part of marriage.”
Seeking a legal marriage — be it sacred, celebratory or a simple frill-free service — has been an emotional seesaw for people like Jamilla and Elizabeth Davis-Varellas. Jamilla, a veterinary technician, and Elizabeth, an account specialist for an online dating service, have watched and waited for the decision to change their fate, poised to get a marriage license if and when the ban is lifted. But so far, the long wait has been marked only by letdowns — as soon as a court ruled the law unconstitutional, Prop. 8 supporters set their appeal in motion. “I have become kind of numb to it,” said Elizabeth Davis-Varellas. “I am not going to get my hopes up until I hear that Prop. 8 is null and void and that gay marriage is legal in California again.”
But for Jamilla Davis-Varellas, there is still hope. “My hope is that it gets struck down by the Supreme Court and there is nowhere else they can go to appeal it,” she said. “Then we will actually have time to plan a wedding, pick a day, pick a venue. And I can pick out a dress and she can pick out a suit.”
So the two women wait once again, with intense interest and longing for a Supreme Court ruling that will settle the matter once and for all. If marriage equality is restored in California, the couple will start planning the wedding of their dreams.