Marriage equality turns five
It all seems so long ago now, and not because of the pandemic, the economic collapse, the police violence, the social unrest and everything else that has happened since... breakfast?
But five years ago, a woman could be denied the right to visit her life partner in intensive care if her life partner was another woman. A man could be denied health coverage for his life partner if his life partner was another man.
A person’s same-sex life partner was called a same-sex life partner instead of her wife or his husband. And those pronouns with those nouns didn’t really roll off the tongue. The idea of two married men or two married women had its own name — same-sex marriage — and it was an idea that split the country, split courts and legislatures, and sent people into the streets with bullhorns and protest signs.
It all seems so long ago now, five years after the June 26, 2015, decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that declared marriage equality the law of the land.
“When I spoke in front of the Supreme Court that morning, I said I looked forward to the day it was no longer gay marriage or same-sex marriage and was just marriage,” said Jim Obergefell, who, along with his late husband, John Arthur, brought the case that led to the historic decision. “Thanks to the hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples who have said, ‘I do,’ that day has arrived. Their family, friends, neighbors and coworkers see those couples and think marriage. No qualifiers, simply marriage.”
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Obergefell, who lived in Cincinnati then and now makes his home in Columbus, is one of many on the right side of history who marvel over how uncontroversial marriage equality seems today. According to a Gallup poll conducted last month, two-thirds of Americans support the idea. A 2017 poll by the Washington, D.C.-based Public Religion Research Institute found that 61 percent of Ohioans believed in same-sex couples’ right to marry, a number that matched the support measured nationally in its survey.
Jimmie Beall was one-half of the first same-sex couple to be issued a marriage license that morning by the Franklin County Probate Court. She and her wife, Mindy, were well-known by officials at the courthouse because they had made an annual Valentine’s Day pilgrimage for the better part of a decade to ask for and be denied a license.
Probate Court employees would offer them sympathy and cookies every year. “It kind of became a joke for us,” Beall said. “‘We’re going to get a consolation prize.’ They were always so kind, though. They’d say, ‘One of these days.’”
On that morning of June 26, Beall, like others, thought the decision might come down. Two years earlier on that exact day, the court ruled that the federal government had to recognize legal same-sex marriages. On June 26, 2003, the court struck down laws in 14 states that still outlawed gay sex between consenting adults.
So Beall and Mindy Ross headed Downtown with a plate of their own homemade cookies and waited for the marriage-license office to open. When the Supreme Court issued its ruling — “the Constitution grants them that right,” concluded Justice Anthony Kennedy — they waited while the magistrate read it through.
“We had seen the magistrate each year. He was the nicest guy,” Beall recalled. “He finally picked up the form and said, ‘Sell those ladies a marriage license!’ And the place just erupted.”
Beall said she and her wife have discussed how they’d feel just as committed to each other had justices ruled the other way in 2015. They didn’t actually wed until the following February, so they ended up having to get another marriage license. The valid piece of paper offers welcome validation, and the original made a great souvenir. Friends had it signed by Obergefell and framed.
Former Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman presided over the city’s bicentennial celebration, a major facelift for the Downtown riverfront, rallies and visits by the first Black president, and four Election Night victories of his own. But also at the top of his list is pronouncing 13 couples husband and husband and wife and wife on July 11, 2015. Two weeks after the dawn of nationwide marriage equality, Columbus celebrated with toasts, rings, flowers, music and a ceremony outside City Hall.
“There were a lot of great days being mayor,” Coleman recalled. “That was one of the great days. It was nothing but joy. I felt a real sense of pride.”
Coleman personified the nation’s evolution on marriage. He was a steadfast ally of the LGBTQ community for supporting anti-discrimination laws, equal health benefits and transition-related coverage for city employees, and LGBTQ liaisons in several city departments even as he continued to declare belief in a one-man, one-woman definition of marriage. In 2012, several months before President Barack Obama, he announced a change of heart and support for full marriage equality.
He told couples before the City Hall ceremony that their weddings were a celebration for the whole community, and they were. More than 200 people attended.
Tom Grote was there to put an exclamation point on years of activism for marriage equality. After voters wrote discrimination into the state Constitution with a 2004 amendment against marriage rights, civil unions and anything similar, he helped start the statewide LGBTQ civil-rights group, Equality Ohio.
He remembers tears of joy the morning of the Supreme Court ruling — and a mad dash to the Short North to celebrate.
“All this hard work by so many people for so long and all the sudden we had marriage equality in the whole country,” he recalled. “All the sudden, I could say, ‘My husband.’ Husband and wife and spouse became standard language for our community.”
Coleman, like so many, marvels at how “commonplace” the idea of marriage for same-sex couples has become. As City Council president in 1998, he and his colleagues, along with local LGBTQ leaders, agreed to rescind domestic-partner benefits for city workers rather than risk an effort by opponents to put the measure before voters.
Beall has experienced the world’s change of heart firsthand. In 2003, she was fired from her teaching job in Madison County by officials who suspected she was a lesbian. Today, few raise an eyebrow at the thought she’s married to a woman.
“People we don’t even know, they’ll refer to Mindy as my wife and I’ll think, ‘Well that came out easy.' People don’t search for what to say. The language was just given to them.”
It’s not a big deal, Grote said. “And isn’t that what we wanted? For it not to be a big deal?”
But just as it was when the Supreme Court ruled last week that existing federal laws against workplace discrimination cover LGBTQ people, the celebration of five years of marriage equality will be somewhat muted this week during the national reckoning over racism and ongoing demonstrations across the country to address police violence against Black Americans.
In Columbus, the LGBTQ community also continues to grapple with the ignorance, institutional racism and sometimes open hostility laid bare after the 2017 arrest and convictions of four Black activists who demonstrated against police violence during that year’s Pride parade.
Grote said many who focused on marriage equality for more than a decade have had to come to terms with the fact they ignored so many other issues during the fight. Beall said celebrations for advances in LGBTQ civil rights must be tempered by the realization that “too many of our community are being attacked and murdered and silenced."
“We don’t have liberty and justice for all,” she said. “We can’t really celebrate until everyone can celebrate.”
Obergefell said he’ll take part in a virtual event Friday with Equality Ohio and be in touch with other plaintiffs and their attorneys to reminisce. At some point, he said, he’ll pop the cork on a bottle of champagne and raise a glass to the memory of his husband, who died of ALS in 2013.
“Our fight can’t be solely about the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “We have no right to demand equality for ourselves if we aren’t demanding equality for every other minority. Equality for one is meaningless without equality for all. … Black Americans are still not equal in America.”