More than a dozen same-sex couples from across the South gathered outside the Arlington County Courthouse on Thursday to apply for marriage licenses.
Gays and lesbians from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and North and South Carolina submitted applications to Arlington Circuit Court Clerk Paul Ferguson in the complex’s plaza. A constitutional amendment that Virginia voters approved in 2006 defines marriage as between a man and a woman in the commonwealth, but those who participated in the action described their decision to take part as symbolic.
“We’re here to resist the unjust laws that label us as second class citizens and to call for full equality on the federal level,” Ivy Hill of Piedmont, S.C., told the Washington Blade after she filled out a marriage license in the complex plaza.
She and her partner of more than two years, Misha Gibson, recently became engaged.
“I’m here today to request a marriage license and knowingly being denied, but doing that to make sure that people know that we’re equal,” Gibson said. “I’m doing it to fight for my civil rights.”
Beth Schissel and Sally White of Atlanta joined four other same-sex couples who tried to apply for marriage licenses in Decatur, Ga., earlier this month.
White, who lived in Richmond for 30 years, joked with the Blade after Ferguson declined to issue them a marriage license she traveled to Virginia with her partner as a way to celebrate her birthday on Saturday.
“I’m a pediatric ER doctor,” Schissel said with tears in her eyes. “I take care of your children and take care of the sick and injured and I served my country. I went to the Air Force Academy and I served my country on active duty and yet I can’t have all the rights that are afforded me under that word marriage under federal law. So it’s a slap in the face type of feeling and it hits you deep in your core.”
The Arlington protest was the last in a series of actions organized by the Campaign for Southern Equality to highlight a lack of marriage rights for same-sex couples in the South and to urge the federal government to extend full equality to LGBT Americans.
The “We Do” campaign kicked-off in Hattiesburg, Miss., on Jan. 2 when five gay and lesbian couples applied for marriage licenses. Others followed suit in Mobile, Ala., Morristown, Tenn., Greenville, S.C., and three North Carolina cities before traveling to Virginia.
“We all live here in the South and we’re Southern folks,” Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, who is also an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ in Asheville, N.C., told the Blade in an interview earlier this month. “This is where we live and we’re working with LGBT folks in small towns and cities across the region who are ready to stand up for equality — federal equality in new ways.”
She stressed her group’s approach to highlight the lack of marriage rights for same-sex couples below the Mason-Dixon Line reflects a broader strategy.
“We do feel like because this is the region where discriminatory laws are most deeply enshrined in state law, it creates a really powerful and unique opportunity to revisit those laws by using peaceful, direct action,” Beach-Ferrara said. “What we’re doing with the ‘We Do’ campaign is folks are taking action in their local communities to resist these state laws, to show what happens when they’re actually enforced. They’re typically invisible because they’re so rarely enforced, if at all. And so the general public is sort of insulated from the reality that we live with day in and day out as LGBT folks in the South, which is these laws exist, but when they’re actually enacted and enforced there’s an opportunity to talk about what that actually means and how that hurts real people and real families.”
Matt Griffin and Raymie Wolfe of Morristown, Tenn., who have been together for more than seven years, sought a marriage license in their hometown on Jan. 9.
Wolfe told the Blade before he and his partner tried to obtain a Virginia marriage license that they were “met with good humor” when they tried to do the same in Tennessee. He noted the clerk said it was the first time a gay couple had ever applied for a marriage license in the town — she did reaffirm the Tennessee does not recognize nuptials for gays and lesbians.
“What we wanted to do was kind of illustrate for people and ourselves what happens when we do that,” Wolfe said. “That’s kind of unprecedented. That was my hometown. It’s where I grew up and as a gay kid there, I kind never imagined that i would be going to a courthouse with a partner and applying for a marriage license.”
Same-sex couples gathered in Arlington three days after a Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee voted against a proposal that would have repealed the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Neighboring Maryland is among the nine states and D.C. that allow gays and lesbians to tie the knot. North Carolina voters last May approved a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between a man and a woman by a 61-39 percent margin, while Minnesota voters on Election Day rejected a similar proposal.
The upcoming oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 also weighed on the minds of the same-sex couples who applied for marriage licenses and those who witnessed them do so.
“I’m very sympathetic to what the people who came before me today are trying to do and I am happy that there’s other jurisdictions where they can go to have their marriage licenses processed,” Ferguson, who is a former member of the Arlington Board of Supervisors, told the Blade. “There’s a Supreme Court decision coming up and so that will add some clarity to a lot of these peoples’ marriages, which is what they were looking for.”
Tim Young and Mark Maxwell of Winston-Salem, N.C., legally married at the Jefferson Memorial after they and other same-sex couples who had sought Virginia marriage licenses marched from Arlington to the nation’s capital.
“We live our lives in a way where we are not denied anything and we are open to being prosperous and successful,” Young, who has been with Maxwell for 20 years and raised four boys with him, said. “We’ve educated ourselves. We run a business so we pay taxes in that state and we give our money to that state, but we don’t have the same rights as other people and we believe in equity and equality.”
Beach-Ferrara noted her group made a deliberate decision to end their latest campaign in D.C.
“It’s in a lot of ways a small, intimate group, but of folks who traveled on a journey that’s symbolic in a lot of ways in the sense that if you live in the South, you need to travel to Washington, D.C., before you can be recognized as an equal citizen,” she said. “The journey folks have taken sort of helps to illustrate the legal realities that LGBT folks live with, which is you are a second class citizen until you reach the Washington border.”