The number of people applying for a marriage license in D.C. each month has nearly tripled since the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling on June 26 overturning the Defense of Marriage Act’s provision barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
The D.C. Superior Court’s Marriage Bureau doesn’t keep track of the gender or sexual orientation of the couples applying for a marriage license. But court observers say gay and lesbian couples make up the overwhelming majority of the additional couples going to the Marriage Bureau on most days at the courthouse at 500 Indiana Ave., N.W.
“We were sitting there and there were so many same-sex couples,” said veteran lesbian activist and businesswoman Eva Freund in describing the scene in the waiting room at the Marriage Bureau last week as she and her partner of 21 years, Elke Martin, waited to be called to file their application for a marriage license.
The two women, who live in Vienna, Va., are among the large number of same-sex couples from states that don’t recognize gay marriage that are now getting married in D.C., which doesn’t have a residency requirement for obtaining a marriage license.
“We just kind of overwhelmed the place,” Freund told the Blade. “And then they called a name and it was a heterosexual couple. And Elke and I looked at one another and said, ‘What are they doing here?’ And then we said, ‘Oh yeah, they need papers, too.”
According to courthouse observers, Freund’s humorous anecdote may be the exception to the disposition of many of the couples – both gay and straight – who become irritable after waiting two hours or longer while the Marriage Bureau staff struggles to process the seeming explosion of applications since late June.
Ken Kero-Mentz, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, and his new husband, David Kero-Mentz, a German national, described their experience with the D.C. Superior Court’s Marriage Bureau as favorable, even though the two waited close to two hours in early July to have their license application processed. The couple also had to wait about eight weeks for an appointment to be married in a civil ceremony at the courthouse, a service the court began providing long before same-sex marriage became legal in D.C.
“Everyone was so nice to us,” said David Kero-Mentz, who is applying for U.S. permanent residency status now that the longstanding prohibition of immigration rights for gay bi-national couples ended with the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA.
Ken Kero-Mentz said he and David, while thrilled to be legally married, didn’t view their D.C. ceremony as that big a deal because they were joined as a couple in an official “registered life partner” ceremony in Berlin in 2008, with 95 friends and family members in attendance. Under German law, registered life partners have all the rights and benefits of a marriage, including immigration rights for foreign national partners.
The D.C. Superior Court has processed same-sex couple applications for marriage licenses since March of 2010, when the city’s marriage equality law took effect.
Court spokesperson Leah Gurowitz said that prior to the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision in late June, the court received on average between 300 and 400 license applications a month. But in July the number of couples applying for a license jumped to 977 and in August the number of couples applying totaled 908 – more than double the average, Gurowitz told the Blade.
“The D.C. Superior Court is committed to addressing the needs of those seeking our services as promptly as possible,” she said in a statement. “In order to meet the increased demand, additional staff have been detailed to the Marriage Bureau.”
Gurowitz added, “In addition, we are working to locate additional office space to help handle the number of applicants we are currently seeing each day, as well as evaluating work processes to improve our customer service.”
Gay rights attorneys have said they expected more same-sex couples to marry following the Supreme Court ruling, which cleared the way for married same-sex couples to obtain most if not all of the federal rights and benefits of marriage.
The Obama administration’s aggressive effort to quickly implement the DOMA ruling by directing federal agencies, including all the branches of the military, to provide marital benefits to same-sex spouses of federal workers, civilian and active duty military, has also boosted the number of lesbian and gay couples deciding to tie the knot, experts have said.
D.C. gay activist Christopher Dyer, who last year obtained a license to perform marriages as a court-approved officiant, said the number of same-sex couples seeking him out to perform their marriage has doubled since the Supreme Court decision.
“I’m getting more military people than ever before,” he said. “Many of them are from Virginia.”
Local gay rights attorney Michele Zavos, who practices family law in the D.C. metro area, said she and other attorneys familiar with the marriage laws of D.C. and Maryland are advising out-of-state clients to choose D.C. over Maryland as the preferred place to marry.
Although same-sex marriage became legal in Maryland earlier this year, Zavos points out that unlike D.C., Maryland has a residency requirement for couples seeking to get a divorce. This means that if a same-sex couple from Virginia or other states that don’t recognize gay marriage decide to marry in Maryland, they could not obtain a divorce in Maryland unless they become a Maryland resident for a year, Zavos said.
She noted that they couldn’t obtain a divorce in their home state if that state doesn’t recognize their marriage, especially if the state has a law or constitutional amendment specifically banning same-sex nuptials as Virginia does.
“Nobody wants to hear this, of course,” Zavos said. “They’re about to be married. They don’t want you to be talking to them about getting divorced.”
Nevertheless, Zavos said many same-sex couples knowledgeable about the residency rules for divorce are choosing D.C. and Delaware, which also allows out-of-state couples to file for a divorce without a residency requirement.
Among those encountering the brunt of the delays at the D.C. Superior Court’s Marriage Bureau are the private marriage officiants who, among other things, file marriage license applications at the courthouse for their same-sex couple clients.
Deborah Cummings-Thomas and her wife, lesbian activist Sheila Alexander-Reid, co-owners of Marry Me In D.C., Inc., specialize in marrying same-sex couples and taking care of the couples’ marriage-related paperwork.
“It’s a nightmare down there right now,” Cummings-Thomas said. “It often takes two hours, sometimes longer” to file a marriage license application, she said. “I’ve been there when people waiting have gotten very upset.” She said 95 percent of the couples she marries are from jurisdictions outside D.C. and at least 95 percent or more of her clients arrange for her to go to the courthouse to deal with the application.
“The employees are very nice,” said Rev. Starlene Joyner Burns, another D.C. marriage officiant who reaches out to same-sex couples. “But they realize the office needs more help. It’s not a system that is broken. It’s just that the demand is greater than what it was in the past.”
Another marriage officiant, who spoke on condition of not being identified, criticized D.C. Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton for not pushing for more funds from Congress to hire additional staff at the courthouse to handle the greater demand for marriage licenses.
Congress and various federal agencies control the D.C. court system rather than the city government under the city’s limited home rule charter. Norton spokesperson Daniel Van Hoogstraten said he would look into the matter.
Others familiar with the Marriage Bureau noted that the D.C. City Council could help the situation by changing the wording in the city’s marriage law that requires a three-day waiting period between the time a marriage license application is submitted and the time a marriage can take place. Marriage laws in most other states have a similar waiting period but those states, like Maryland, issue the license during the applicants’ first visit to the state marriage bureau and post-date it to prevent the marriage from taking place until after the waiting period expires.
Critics of the D.C. Marriage Bureau say it requires applicants or officiants working on their behalf to return to the bureau a second time to pick up the license following the waiting period, a process that causes further delays.
But according to people familiar with the D.C. marriage law, the law prevents the Marriage Bureau from postdating a marriage license because it states explicitly that a license “shall not be issued until three days have elapsed” from the time the application is filed.
“They have two people handling 50 or 60 people at any given time,” said the marriage officiant who asked not to be identified. “They told me please do what you can to get out the word and help us get more staff.”
Comings & Goings
Nathanson takes role at Outright Action
The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected]
The Comings & Goings column also invites LGBTQ+ college students to share their successes with us. If you have been elected to a student government position, gotten an exciting internship, or are graduating and beginning your career with a great job, let us know so we can share your success.
Congratulations to Rikki Nathanson on her new position as Senior Advisor – Global Trans Program with OutRight Action International in New York. Nathanson will be based in D.C.
“I am absolutely thrilled to be taking on this new role as Senior Advisor in OutRight’s Global Trans Program,” said Nathanson. “I have finally found the perfect fit for me: as a trans woman who has been fighting for equality not only for myself, but for others globally, this position is not only a job, it’s intrinsically part of who I am. So, what better way to live, nurture and grow myself.”
Nathanson will be working closely with all program staff to ensure a cohesive and intentional approach to gender issues throughout OutRight’s programs, including its approach to gender ideology movements. She will lead new initiatives on gender advocacy and policy change, focused but not limited to legal gender recognition and anti-discrimination legislation and policies.
Prior to this Nathanson was director of housing programs at Casa Ruby in D.C. She has also held a number of other positions including: founder/executive director of Trans Research, Education, Advocacy & Training (TREAT), Zimbabwe; chairperson Southern Africa Trans Forum, SATF, Cape Town, South Africa; executive director, Ricochet Modeling Agency, Zimbabwe; and company secretary for Dunlop Zimbabwe Limited, Zimbabwe.
SMYAL Director Shakir to step down Dec. 31
Board to launch Executive Search beginning in January
Sultan Shakir, who has served as executive director of D.C.’s LGBTQ youth advocacy organization SMYAL since August 2014, announced on Friday that he will be stepping down from his position effective Dec. 31.
In a Dec. 3 announcement, SMYAL said details of Shakir’s future career plans would be announced in the coming weeks.
“While we are sad to see Sultan leave, we wish him nothing but the same success in his new endeavor as he had at SMYAL,” said Rob Cogorno, SMYAL’s board chair. “His leadership and vision enabled SMYAL to expand greatly needed services to LGBTQ youth in the DC metro area throughout his tenure,” Cogorno said.
“I am immensely proud of the work we have been able to accomplish together in my time at SMYAL,” Shakir said in a statement released by SMYAL. “SMYAL has been an integral and vital resource in the DMV community for over 37 years, and while we have come a long way in combating homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexual health stigma, homelessness, violence against the LGBTQ community, and oppression, we have a long way to go,” he said.
“This work has never been about one person,” said Shakir. “SMYAL was founded by our community and we’re still around because of our community,” he said. “I leave knowing that the commitment and passion of the SMYAL Board, staff, volunteers, and youth leaders have created a solid foundation from which our work will continue to grow until LGBTQ youth no longer need us.”
The SMYAL statement says that under Shakir’s tenure, SMYAL, which stands for Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, expanded its programs and services for LGBTQ youth. Among other things, in 2017 SMYAL opened its first of several housing facilities for homeless LGBTQ youth that include culturally competent case management, education and employment assistance.
“The Youth Housing Program now comprises five programmatic models that serve a combined 61 youth residents,” the statement says.
It points out that also under Shakir’s leadership, SMYAL expanded the age range of the youth its programs serve under a new Little SMYALs program, which welcomes LGBTQ youth ages 6-12. And earlier in 2021 under Shakir’s guidance, SMYAL began a new Clinical Services Department “which provides affirming and accessible mental health counseling,” the statement says.
“The SMYAL Board of Directors will officially launch an Executive Search beginning in January 2022 and expects to have named a new Executive Director by summer 2022,” the statement says. It says the board will soon name an interim executive director to work with SMYAL’s Deputy Executive Director, Jorge Membreno, and the organization’s leadership team to oversee the day-to-day activities until a new executive director is named.
Rainbow History Project to honor LGBTQ ‘Pioneers’
Virtual celebration to take place on Dec. 9
D.C.’s Rainbow History Project says it will honor and recognize 12 individuals and one organization by designating them as Community Pioneers “for their diverse contributions to the Washington-area LGBTQ community” at a Dec. 9 virtual celebration.
“Rainbow History Project is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing the LGBT history of metropolitan Washington, D.C.,” the group says in a statement announcing the event. “The Pioneers awards recognize diverse community leaders for their roles as organizational founders, innovators, advocates and volunteers,” the statement says.
“The Pioneers celebration will be held virtually and is designed with special features that reproduce the feeling of attending in-person, such as live streaming and video chatting with other attendees and Pioneers before and after the core awards programing,” according to the statement.
“Celebrating our Community Pioneers has been a cherished tradition since Rainbow History Project’s founding 21 years ago,” said Rob Berger, the organization’s chairperson. “It’s always an inspiring event, and we are happy that our virtual platform will still allow participants to meet and talk with the Pioneers,” Berger said in the statement.
The virtual event is free and open to the public, the statement says. Organizers released this link for those interested in attending, saying a short registration process may require registering in advance.
Following is the list of Community Pioneers scheduled to be honored at the Dec. 9 event as released by Rainbow History Project along with the project’s description of their backgrounds.
– Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance, a local group that since its founding has addressed equal rights issues for LGBTQ Virginians from a state and local perspective.
– Eboné F. Bell, founder and editor-in-chief of Tagg Magazine and Tagg Communication LLC.
– Bart Forbes, founding member of “Gay Fairfax,” a pioneering television newsmagazine program in Northern Virginia.
– Ellen Kahan, youth and family advocate, president of Rainbow Families, former director of the Lesbian Services Program at Whitman-Walker Health, and currently senior director of programs and partnerships at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
– Theodore Kirkland (deceased), a co-founder of D.C. Black Pride in 1991, member of the Gay Liberation Front and Skyline Faggots, active community health volunteer and advocate.
– Paul Marengo, community leader through LGBTQ organizations including Reel Affirmations, Cherry Fund, and Pride celebrations for youth, Latino, Black and Transgender communities.
– David Mariner, executive director of CAMP Rehoboth, and former executive director of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community.
– Mark Meinke founder longtime chair, Rainbow History Project, and co-founder of Rainbow Heritage Network, a national organization for the recognition and preservation of sites, history and heritage associated with sexual and gender minorities.
– Michael “Micci” Sainte Andress, artist, health educator and advocate and an early leader in bringing African Americans into HIV/AIDS clinical trials.
– Boden Sandstrom, founder and owner of Woman Sound (later City Sound), the first all-woman sound company, which makes LGBTQ rights rallies and the women’s music scene possible.
– Casse Culver (deceased), nationally acclaimed D.C. lesbian feminist singer-songwriter, and partner of Boden Sandstrom, whose followers said her love songs and feminist lyrics moved audiences from foot stomping to silent reflection.
– Alan Sharpe, playwright, director and co-founder of the African American Collective Theater in Washington, D.C., in 1976, which now focuses on LGBTQ life and culture in the Black community.
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