The End of June
Every Monday morning in June, marriage equality activists blocked off their calendars and waited. They waited for the Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, a landmark case that would end a decades-long legal conflict. They originally thought that the decision would come on a Monday, or one of the last two Thursdays. Then June 26, a Friday, was added to the court’s calendar. The justices convened at 10 in the morning, like always. Jim Obergefell, the Cincinnati man whose name became synonymous with the fight for marriage equality, had already come to the Supreme Court four times in June. He arrived again on June 26, and he waited.
Chris Geggie had a feeling that Friday would be the day. Though the court typically eschewed the historical significance of the timing of rulings, the last weekend in June was laden with noteworthy historic events: the nullification of the Defense of Marriage Act, which legalized marriage equality federally; the eradication of sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas; and the birth of the modern LGBT rights movement during the Stonewall riots. Geggie gathered his staff in the downtown Columbus offices of Why Marriage Matters Ohio, and like many of the Mondays and Thursdays before, he pulled up SCOTUSblog—a website with live information and reportage about Supreme Court decisions. Then they all waited together.
A few miles away in the Short North, Lori Gum and Karla Rothan were glued to SCOTUSblog on the computer screen in Gum’s office at Stonewall Columbus, an LGBTQ advocacy organization and community center. The vignette repeated across the city: Josh Snyder-Hill watched the blog in between meetings; Chelsea Blessing monitored it from her work while texting her wife Cara; Rick Neal set up shop with his 3-year-old daughter in his German Village home—his iPad showing SCOTUSblog, and Facebook ready on his laptop. Grant Stancliff watched the website in the offices at Equality Ohio, which shares a suite with Why Marriage Matters. A few strides away, Geggie and two colleagues hunkered in his office with their eyes fixed on the computer. “Marriage” appeared on the screen, and then nothing else. They held each others’ hands and waited.
In the courtroom in Washington D.C., Obergefell was surprised to hear his case number called first, and he grabbed the hands of two friends sitting on either side of him. He began crying as Justice Anthony Kennedy read the summary judgment, listening and weeping with bittersweet joy as the nation’s highest court struck down Ohio’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, ruling that the 14th Amendment guaranteed marriage equality in all 50 states. Obergefell marveled at how Kennedy’s final four words—It is so ordered—could mean so much.
All to the chagrin of the four dissenting justices. They beat their chests and tore their robes to shreds in their dissents, foretelling a new age of vast and capricious judicial power, democracy be damned. The fiercely divided court portends the agitation in the country at large, the two sides of the ideological struggle pitted against one another. And the reality of social change is far different than the mechanism of law. It is so ordered doesn’t compel into action hundreds of millions of people across a nation, much less wipe clean the agenda of organizations and individuals who spent years battling against the coming of this day at the end of June.
Make no mistake: this will be a fight.
Adopting the Language of Love
In 1983, a Harvard law student named Evan Wolfson wrote a legal opinion backing marriage equality, which was still a controversial and mostly untested tactic at the time. Nevertheless, he dedicated himself to the cause, in part because it allowed the LGBT movement to “claim a vocabulary of love and commitment and connection,” according to an interview in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In 2003, Wolfson launched Freedom to Marry; meanwhile, barely a year later, voters in 13 states including Ohio passed constitutional bans against same-sex marriage. Freedom to Marry subsequently served as a founding partner—along with Equality Ohio, the Human Rights Campaign, and ACLU of Ohio—for Why Marriage Matters Ohio. Geggie has been the state campaign manager since he arrived in March 2014, after stops at other campaigns in Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Indiana. He was first drawn into an activist role by Proposition Eight—a ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in his home state of California in 2008. Like most other LGBT rights supporters at the time, he didn’t think there was any way it would pass—except it did. Advocates across the nation were disheartened and upset. How did they lose? In California of all places?
“I didn’t want anybody to ever experience what I experienced in California—never to have that vote take place on the basic dignity of a person’s life and who they love,” he said.
As of June 26, he and his fellow activists achieved that goal, at least for now. In the moments after the decision appeared on SCOTUSblog, he stared at the screen in dead silence, reading the words over and over again. Even 10 days later, as he sat in the empty downtown office suite while everyone else was on vacation, Geggie couldn’t help but think to himself, Holy crap, we did it.
Karla Rothan and Lori Gum of Stonewall Columbus didn’t expect the Supreme Court decision to affect them, not emotionally anyway. Instead, the moment overcame them. Gum’s hands shook when she first got the opinion. Rothan, the organization’s executive director, said she never realized that she was holding so much back until after the decision—life seemed brighter in its wake.
Though the victory was won in the courts, the tide also began to turn in mainstream society several years ago, a phenomenon that was visible in the form of business participation in the annual Pride parade and festival, for which Gum is the coordinator. What was once a public display of solidarity among a tight-knit group of activists is now also filled with company executives and contingents from large corporations. Stonewall takes some flak for the groundswell of commercial presence, but it also represents the fact that businesses realized that rallying against LGBT persons meant taking a stance against their own employees. Unlike 10 years ago, large corporations now court Stonewall, driven to support Pride by their companies’ own LGBT affinity groups and employee resource groups, which advocate for change and inclusivity from within.
“Progress has happened because people lived out and told their stories. Period,” Gum said. “That’s why this happened so quickly.”
Stonewall works with businesses to train executives and human resources departments on issues like transgender language sensitivity, discrimination, and sexual reassignment surgery as part of insurance plans. Nothing illustrates the cultural shift better than their recent training sessions with AEP. In 2012, the utility company scored 15 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which rates companies on their policies relevant to LGBT employees. Pride Partnership—AEP’s resource group for LGBT employees and allies—launched that same year. The HRC score provided an eye-opening moment for the executive team.
“You always have to benchmark yourself, right?” said Lisa Barton, executive vice president of transmission and a Pride Partnership sponsor. “You really wanna sit there and see how you’re doing with respect to your peers, and obviously scoring a 15 was not where we wanted to be as a company.”
By 2014, AEP had raised its HRC score to an 80, and it achieved the same rating in 2015. Now the company is working with Stonewall to educate and train Pride Partnership members, HR employees, and executive staff like Barton on best practices regarding transgender employees, which they see as essential to their aim—to provide a welcoming and inclusive workplace. “We’re working to 100; 100’s the goal,” Barton said.
Legal Strangers No More
The ramifications of the watershed decision were felt most acutely at home. Stephen Snyder-Hill served in the Army for more than two decades, and he and his husband Josh recently attempted to take out a VA loan to fund the purchase of a new home. But Ohio wouldn’t let them file jointly because it didn’t recognize their 2011 marriage in Washington D.C. Then they wanted to put their old property under Josh’s name so they could distribute their liabilities, but Ohio also requires that property sales be conducted with “arm’s length transactions,” meaning that two parties can’t have comingled assets and sell property to one another—unless they’re married. The couple worked with five lending agencies, but ultimately they weren’t able to get Josh’s name on the deed of either property.
“Stephen had to be able to prove that he could have two mortgages under his name instead of one—I’m nobody,” Josh said. If they were to apply for the loan jointly now, it would go the same as for any other couple.
“For us it feels like this reprieve. Like, ‘Oh my God, this is so nice,’” Stephen said. “But then when you step back and look at it, we just get the same process now. And it makes you realize that you really did live in a repressed way.”
Rick Neal and his husband Tom Grote were ready when the decision came down. They have two adopted daughters, Sophie and Amoret, but because Ohio doesn’t allow unmarried partners to adopt and didn’t recognize their civil marriage in Massachusetts, they had to choose which of them would serve as the legal father. They decided that it should be Grote for financial reasons, and Neal would be the stay-at-home dad.
“So on the birth certificate,” Neal said, “mother is blank, father is listed as him, and I’m still this legal stranger.” Their attorney pushed the law as far as she could and got Neal co-custody agreements for both daughters. But he had to carry the paperwork around, especially when they were traveling, to prove his legal standing and assert his co-parenting rights in case of a medical emergency.
As soon as the Supreme Court ruled, Neal and Grote—who was a founding chair of the board of Equality Ohio—filed Neal’s petition with the probate court to complete a step-parent adoption. While they waited for the court hearing at the end of July, there was a mess of paperwork to fill out, and a home study, and a fire inspection, and an FBI background check. They knew the drill—they’ve been through it before—but they have to go through it again because it only applied to Grote the first time.
Grote laughed as he explained the absurdity of the situation, but Neal was quick to point out that everything has been so much easier for them because of their supportive families, financial means, and home in Franklin County. There were thousands upon thousands of couples, he asserted, living in unfriendly counties with unsupportive families and no money to hire a lawyer, crossing their fingers and hoping nothing went haywire.
“I mean, can you imagine that stress?” Neal asked. “And now that’s gone.”
For a year and a half, that stress consumed Cara Blessing’s life. When she and her former partner adopted their son Colin they were unmarried and had to choose one official parent for the child. Her girlfriend was listed as the legal mother, and Cara never thought twice about co-custody agreements. The couple split up when Colin was a year and a half old, and her ex-girlfriend denied her access or any parenting rights. She was caught completely off guard.
She hired a lawyer, and the former couple waged a nasty court battle over custody of their son. Luckily, there had been a precedent case before hers, and Cara was fortunate to receive a favorable judge and magistrate. She also had plenty of documentation backing up her role as a mother to Colin, and she was prepared to fight and appeal as long as necessary. After a year and a half, the magistrate told them to stop the bloodletting because she intended to grant co-custody.
“The fact that we almost lost Colin was horrible,” Cara said. “I would hate that for any child to have to lose a parent or half their family.”
She and her ex now share custody, with each mother getting Colin 50 percent of the time. Cara and her wife Chelsea Blessing were married in Chicago in April 2014, and they’re considering pregnancy now. They were planning to drive to Illinois two days before the birth so that Chelsea could have the child in a state where their marriage would be recognized and both their names would be on the birth certificate. That’s no longer necessary.
“You know, the thing about gay couples is they don’t enter into parenthood lightly. You don’t just get pregnant. It’s not like, ‘Oops, surprise!’” Chelsea said, laughing. “It’s very thought out, and it’s time-consuming, and it can be very expensive, and it can be very traumatic and stressful and exciting, but there are two people who are very committed to a child.”
A Battle Continues
Even with the victory in the marriage arena, the LGBT rights movement has plenty of work remaining. The instantaneous acknowledgement of existing gay marriages led to lots of questions; Stonewall’s first legal seminar to help the LGBTQ community navigate the new reality received 150 RSVPs in 12 hours. Stonewall also acts as a watchdog, making sure that some of the advancements—like the Affordable Care Act’s inclusion of hormone replacement therapy for transgender individuals—are actually accessible for their community.
Education about transgender awareness and rights is a key component going forward; even within the LGBT community there is a lack of understanding sometimes. Ohio is one of only four states where transgender individuals can’t change the gender marker on their birth certificate after transitioning, which affects the ability to travel and update other important documents, according to Grant Stancliff of Equality Ohio.
On a basic level, the LGBT movement is fighting some of the same battles it has fought since the very beginning, like young homelessness. A Supreme Court decision can’t prevent a family from kicking gay youth out of the home, and according to Chris Geggie, roughly half of homeless youth are LGBT.
And another major legal hurdle still stands—there is no Ohio law preventing LGBT persons from being discriminated against in housing, employment, and public accommodations. In the way that Why Marriage Matters Ohio fought for marriage equality, a newly formed coalition called Ohio Competes will bear the torch for equality in the workplace and public life. Equality Ohio, HRC, and ACLU of Ohio again joined forces to begin a campaign that will work with the legislature this session to try to pass a statewide bill guaranteeing those legal protections. Nationally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Council—the independent commission in charge of enforcing federal nondiscrimination laws—ruled in July that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decision applies directly to federal employees and is also taken into consideration by the courts in cases involving the private sector.
“Gay couples don’t enter into parenthood lightly. It’s very thought out … it’s time-consuming, expensive, stressful and exciting, but there are two people who are very committed to a child.”
Chris Walker, a professor of law at Ohio State and former clerk for Justice Kennedy, said that most of the action in the near future will be at state and local levels before it eventually trickles to the courts. Governor Kasich issued an executive order in 2011 that protects employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it only applies to state workers and doesn’t extend to gender identity. Meanwhile, Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo already have comprehensive local laws protecting LGBT citizens against discrimination.
In March, a Bexley business named Next Door Stories declined to provide videographer services for the same-sex wedding ceremony of Jenn Moffitt and Jerra Knicely. The couple began an online boycott of the business, and by the end of March, Bexley City Council vowed to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance. Officials worked closely with Equality Ohio to draft it, according to Stancliff, and it passed on June 23. It was another victory for the movement, but it also pointed to a pending standoff.
“With momentum comes backlash,” Stancliff said. “And this year we’ve already seen, not just in Ohio but across the country, over 100 anti-LGBT bills put forward in state legislatures.”
The First and Fourteenth
“Can you imagine if a baker said to a Christian couple, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t believe in Christianity so we’re not gonna bake you a cake,” Tom Grote said, laughing. “We would have a war. They would go absolutely crazy.”
The stories are already accruing across the country, a baker here, a florist there—the businesses that comprise the wedding industry—refusing to provide services for same-sex marriages. “I would parse this very carefully,” Lori Gum said. “What’s really looming legally is the clash between the 14th Amendment and the First Amendment, free exercise of religion.”
It’s unclear how that contest will play out, and even though the First Amendment holds a special place for many Americans, Walker confirmed that all constitutional amendments are created equal in the eyes of the courts.
“It’s really hard to balance these rights, especially in the religious liberty context, against 14th Amendment rights. I think it’s difficult, and even the state courts really struggle with trying to strike a balance of those two different values,” Walker said. “I don’t have a great answer. Most courts don’t have a great answer.”
The notion that marriage equality could infringe upon religion itself cuts even deeper. In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that it appeared “all but inevitable” that the governmental and religious institutions of marriage would come into conflict as “churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.”
“Nobody’s fighting to break down the doors of a church to get married by the preacher in there,” Josh Snyder-Hill countered. “Nobody’s forcing somebody to host a gay marriage in their living room.”
In mid-July, Representative Nino Vitale introduced Ohio House Bill 286, which stated that ordained ministers and religious societies cannot be forced to perform marriage ceremonies that don’t comply with their beliefs. It also holds that they can’t face civil or criminal penalties for refusing to perform a ceremony, nor can the government withhold tax exemptions or other benefits for this refusal.
It may seem that Vitale’s bill is already covered by the First Amendment, but it is a little more complicated than that, according to Steven Huefner, the director of clinical programs at Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law. In a case about peyote use in religious ceremonies, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment did not relieve people from complying with the law, even if it burdened their exercise of a sincere religious belief. Congress then passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from “substantially burdening” someone’s exercise of religion without a compelling interest. Some states have adopted similar laws, like the one signed in Indiana in March. Huefner wrote in an email that House Bill 286 is best understood as a “mini-RFRA”—it’s intended to protect ministers and churches in case a First Amendment argument alone is not enough.
“At the moment it is very hard to imagine any court compelling a minister or religious society to conduct a same-sex marriage against their religious beliefs,” he wrote. “The issue really becomes whether a religious society might lose the benefits of a tax exemption on this basis.”
Although some battles between LGBT rights advocates and churches seem inevitable, there is also plenty of support for the movement from certain churches. In March, more than 200 faith leaders from around Ohio signed an amicus brief in favor of marriage equality, filed with the Supreme Court.
One of those faith leaders was Pastor John Keeny of King Avenue United Methodist Church. In the late-1990s, his predecessor Grayson Atha transitioned the congregation into what is known as a reconciling church, which is welcoming and affirming of all people, including LGBT worshippers. King Avenue lost some members who were unhappy with Atha’s decision, but Keeny said that the congregation has grown steadily in the 15 years since, from 200 people on Sundays to an average of 550 now.
Keeny believes that churches need to become more inclusive to survive in the modern era, including being open to all races, ethnicities, and economic groups. As for the reason other churches take such a hard line on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, he argued that some people feel that the authority of the Bible has been eroded by divisive issues like slavery, evolution, women’s rights, and divorce.
“You could argue the authority of the Bible was undercut by these social movements,” he said. “Some people will say the last stand for the authority of the Bible is homosexuality. So that’s why the argument becomes so heated and critical for some people.”
The Slow Progress of Lived Equality
According to the HRC, there are 1,138 rights, benefits, and protections provided for married couples on the federal level. On June 26, in the time it takes to read a blog post, LGBT couples gained legal access to all of those. But unlike the online summary of that Supreme Court opinion, everything they’ve gained does not necessarily just appear.
In Toledo, Municipal Court Judge C. Allen McConnell opted out of marrying a lesbian couple, citing religious reasons, and issued a statement that he was looking into getting his rotation changed so that he would not have to refuse other LGBT couples. Nearby, two of the three ministers who perform weddings in the Lucas County Courthouse have said they will not perform same-sex ceremonies. Though Guernsey County has been issuing marriage licenses, none of the officials are willing to solemnize any civil marriages at all, mostly claiming scheduling difficulties.
Against the backdrop of small pockets of resistance and individual objections, Chris Geggie also emphasized the importance of LGBT people gaining “lived equality,” the experience of being treated as equal across all social and cultural contexts. He claimed that roughly 84 percent of bullying cases are related to LGBT perception, and while anti-bullying protections can curb that, eliminating it requires widespread societal change.
Lori Gum provided a compelling example. Last year she completed a cultural competency session at a healthcare organization. At its conclusion, a woman said that she thought this LGBT foolishness was being handled correctly in Uganda, where homosexuality is punishable by long prison sentences and the government proposed the death penalty for certain homosexual offenses at one point recently. Gum is a firebrand, an outspoken activist full of confidence, but she didn’t have to say a word; the woman’s coworkers shouted her down while Gum sat back and watched. Afterwards, Gum told the crowd, “Intolerance may be sitting in the next cubicle from you.”
The anecdote depicts the collision of two extreme ends of the spectrum of being gay in modern America. There are still those who believe that, at least in theory, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people should be systematically purged from the earth. Now, there are also entire rooms full of people willing and ready to stand up and tell the bigots to go to hell.
As Geggie and Gum stressed, the sea change in popular opinion over the past decade has largely been thanks to members of the LGBT community living out and telling their stories. They learned the hard lessons of Prop Eight and the state constitutional bans—when people speak about equality only in terms of tax benefits and legal protections, it’s easy to forget the people behind the politics. The light of recognition only flickers on when they discuss the deeper reasons why gay people want to get married—love, commitment, family, and faith—the same as everyone else.
And Finally, a Wedding
On June 26, Robyne Miles was not watching SCOTUSblog. She was home from work, taking a vacation day. She didn’t expect a ruling from the Supreme Court; she’d heard it would come the following Monday. Yet something told her to turn on the TV, and she saw a special report that the justices ruled in favor of LGBT rights. She called her girlfriend Arkenia White at work. White answered, but all she heard was Miles sobbing. She was crying so hard that White couldn’t even understand what she was saying. She still knew what the call meant, though—they were finally getting married.
“So many people have fought so hard so that a day like today could happen … so let none of us take this moment for granted.”
“We’ve been together 18 years, and we’ve loved each other, and we always wanted to get married,” Miles said. “Why not be a part of the historic event?”
That historic event was called Vowed and Proud, for which the City of Columbus and Stonewall selected 13 LGBT couples to be publicly wed at city hall. High noon on July 11 was bright and blue, clear and hot, and Portman Plaza was bustling with people in floral print dresses and vibrantly colored clothing. Mayor Michael Coleman served as the officiant, a powerful executive endorsement in the capital where it was banned by the state constitution only weeks earlier. A few police officers idly chatted on the sidewalk. No protestors showed.
Tom Grote raised a champagne flute to toast the assembled couples, his older daughter Amoret on his shoulders, his husband Rick and his younger daughter Sophie by his side. “So many people have fought so hard so that a day like today could happen … so let none of us take this moment for granted.”
During the ceremony, the procession of couples made its way down the aisle, and then they formed a semicircle at the west end of the plaza, surrounding Coleman at the podium. He told everyone to be seated and then he began. “We’re all here today…” he intoned, and the crowd began to applaud and cheer. The significance of his opening phrase was not lost on them; the struggle to get to that moment had stretched decades. They allowed him those first four words and then they rejoiced—they had waited long enough.
Faces of Equality
Jim Obergefell wasn’t the only Ohioan making news in the battle for equality in the wake of June’s Supreme Court decision.
Seven-year-old Zea Bowling won’t know much of the world that existed before the momentous decision, but that didn’t stop her from facing down a religious protester at this year’s ComFest. The stirring image became a viral symbol in the days following the decision, as the screenshot made the rounds to press across the nation and worldwide. The accompanying YouTube Video “1st Grader Backs Down Homophobe Street Preacher” shot by her father Ryan had reeled in more than 8 million views as of this printing. We all know viral images are only fleetingly prominent on the Internet, but Zea and her father are extending the moment for good by licensing the likeness to Traxler Printing, which is selling the “14th Amendemnt” T-shirt. Portions of the sales will go to Kaleidoscope Youth Center, the only organization in Ohio solely dedicated to supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth and their allies. For more about Zea and her story, visit traxlertees.com.
Though I’m not a member of the LGBT community, it’s easy to look at the origins of the United States and support freedom and tolerance. After all, who wakes up and consciously decides their sexual orientation? With that general sentiment, a dose of optimism that this year’s summer monsoon season would subside for a parade, and a large golf umbrella, the drizzly trip downtown only took 25 minutes.
The Pride parade marches up High Street through the most exciting part of Columbus, the Short North. Spending time there teaches parking strategies depending on the event, and the Pride Parade was no different. There are a few special places that locals know to park,,and arriving 20 minutes before the start of an event is not optimal. Cutting north up Fourth Street and circling around in the drizzle quickly made it clear that the special insider parking would fail, when suddenly a spot at a parking meter opened up just off High Street near White Castle.
With 15 minutes until the scheduled start and a battery-packed camera with a wide aperture lens sheltered under an oversized umbrella, the timing to walk down to the start worked out perfectly. People were lining up on the street, and with every step closer to Goodale Avenue, there were more and more people crowding the sidewalk. Cutting down a back street and walking over on Russell gave me access to an open overhang at Bernard’s Tavern. Greeting the bouncer Jay at the door and settling into a space under the canopy, it seemed like the rain might actually stop—how sneaky this summer has been.
As the time drew near for the start, more and more people showed up, and it became clear that standing under the awning would not afford a clear enough vantage point. Umbrella back in hand, camera ready, and curb space secured, it was time for Pride.
The rain was steady, and as the parade progressed it became clear that pictures would be challenging for anyone, making it even more important to stand fast. Managing to balance the umbrella—which moved closer and closer to my head as the rain increased—allowed a steady stream of pictures. Normally there would be 500 or 600, but huddled in the cold, I got less than 200 RAW shots.
The exciting part of the parade was recognizing people and being recognized. Being an active photographer means more people recognize the person pointing a camera at them: the big smiles of TV personalities Angela Ann and Monica Day, Magistrate Jennifer Hanysh walking with LBrands, clothing designer Horacio Nieto promoting the upcoming Fashion Meets Music Festival, the Ooh La La burlesque performers, to name a few.
The rain was relentless and the streets were filling with water, but there are times when being stubborn pays off. Toward the end of the parade, two women who had been watching nearby walked out onto the route to greet someone, and afterward turned to each other in celebration. It was that moment, in the heaviest rain of the day that Ali and Paige shared a moment of love and embrace representing a special kind of pride that all of Columbus could feel.
— Tony Bentivegna