In May of 2004, my then partner of 11 years and I cried tears of joy to learn that the Massachusetts Supreme Court had decided it was unconstitutional to allow only heterosexual couples to marry. On May 17th we sat in our car outside our tiny town hall and waited for the doors to open, chatting with the one other couple there. There had been no formal proposal; no engagement; no long, drawn out wedding plans—because we had a child together, it was the thing to do, and so we did. When we entered the town clerk’s office at 8 a.m. we filled out the request for marriage license, handed over our respective identification, and were one of the first lesbian couples in the country to receive a marriage license.
And so, when I found myself standing at the registry of deeds in Winston Salem, North Carolina, on May 10th, 2012, with my partner of 3 years (although we’ve known each other for 28, but that’s a long story for another time), I had an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu and an unrealistic sense of expectation.
Unrealistic, because just two days earlier, this state that is once again my home state (the state that I grew up in) passed an amendment to the constitution banning gay marriage even though gay marriage has been illegal in North Carolina for 16 years. We were not there to get a marriage license. We were there as part of a peaceful protest organized by the grassroots Campaign for Southern Equality and we were joined by nine other GLBTQ couples and more than 100 supporters. The scene bore little resemblance to that chilly, quiet early May morning in Massachusetts and yet I still had this nagging point of excitement in my gut that had nothing to do with the media frenzy or the many faces of the county workers that stared down at us from the floor-to-ceiling glass walls that circled the courtyard in which we gathered for a blessing before our act of civil disobedience.
We had walked, undeterred by any antagonistic protestors, from a loft a few blocks away. A long, determined chain of average folks: young and old and middle-aged (us) and black and white and not and some with kids and some without and clergy in the front and police on bikes alongside and cameras following our every footstep and we each held our partner’s hand. Because that’s what you do in the face of adversity. You cling to the person you love and you show the world that you aren’t some monster that is going to rape and pillage and convert their kids as you’ve been so recently portrayed on television and in the papers.
And so we walked.
And when we arrived we circled the wagons and we were surrounded by loving support from all sides. We were blessed in prayer and we were led by the organizers of this incredible action into the building and up the escalator (or was it stairs—the details have become blurred by the whirlwind of the before and after, the little things slip away from me as the days go by). We stood in line, holding fast to one another and watched each couple enter the glass-walled “room of decision,” flanked by the director, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, at least one support person from the Campaign for Southern Equality, and any family or friends who had come along for moral support. Some couples came out so quickly I wasn’t sure that they had even been asked for their identification. It all seemed to be happening too fast. I was becoming angry. I wanted to have a speech prepared–something profound, something scathing, something that would go down in history. And still, for some inane reason, I kept expecting things to be different for us. I joked with my partner to use a really low voice and maybe we could trick them, forgetting for a moment that our identification would immediately give us away. Forgetting for a moment why we were there in the first place.
We could hear the roar of the crowds as each couple emerged into the huge group of supporters outside. They were cheering their bravery. We were buoyed by the energy, fueled by the wave of radical love. And before I knew it we were being ushered into the inner sanctum. Joined by a beloved young adult from our church, the three of us were beckoned to the far end of the long desk. I had a vision of a line of grave countenances of the county workers seated at their stations and behind them a sea of photographers, cameras everywhere. Right in our faces. All thoughts of saying anything coherent went out of my head.
I was holding my driver’s license, my social security card, and, in my other hand, a wallet-sized photo of my son, wrinkled and damp from my sweaty palm. I wanted to show it to the woman at the desk. I wanted to show to everyone. I wanted to hold it up to the cameras and tell them that this 11-year-old boy is who we were fighting for. We were a family. We needed civil rights afforded us under the constitution so that my son could be protected at all costs. I wanted them to know that we were just an average family with jobs and a great church and a dog and a cat and this incredible kid and two old cars and a huge family of friends and…and…and…my voice died in my throat and my partner was requesting a marriage license and the woman was blankly telling us that “it was against the law of the state of North Carolina to issue a marriage license to anyone other than one man and one woman.”
That weirdly irrational, stupidly unrealistic part of me just threw up a little bit in my mouth. I knew why we were there. I’m not a dumb woman, far from it. But dammit, I’m also an idealist and a dreamer and somehow I thought it would all turn out alright. I thought that if I could get a marriage license on a chilly, quiet May morning and marry someone to whom I had to pay an enormous amount of money to divorce just two years later (because sometimes you should really take the time to think things through before you leap into something just because it’s legal), then I should be handed a stupid piece of paper legalizing the big gay wedding I’d shared with my partner just seven months prior.
I felt deflated. All I could say–numbly, dumbly–was “We’ll be back,” like some female version of the Terminator. My partner asked if the clerk could document our denial and we were denied that as well with a flat statement that it was “not policy,” although we later learned that other couples did get their requests documented with the date and “request denied.” The rest became more of a blur as we somehow found ourselves outside and I had become deaf and mute and put on a smiling face for the paparazzi and quelled the hurt and ache by mentally punching myself in the stomach.
When the last of the couples’ requests were denied, three remained to await arrest. For some reason they decided to extend office hours until 7 p.m. and so we made the trek back to the loft to gather in a huge circle and briefly process what had just occurred. I talked a bit about my feelings of surprise at not receiving a marriage license. I fought for this once already. I lived in a state where I took so many things for granted. I now live in a state where I am a second-class citizen. I am viewed as “less-than” and “other.” I am fighting for my rights all over again.
My Pollyanna viewpoint is definitely tarnished. I’m feeling a little worse-for-wear these days. But I am sure that, like every one of the other “Winston Salem Ten” as they are now referring to us in the media, I am down but not out. My partner and I believe very strongly in the work that the Campaign for Southern Equality is doing and in the WE DO campaign itself. We’ll just keep on going. My skin will toughen up and I’ll get used to denial.
Sooner or later, they’ll have to say yes.