When Bryan and Michael decided to leave California in 2005 and relocate to suburban Charleston, they didn’t realize they’d be heading back to the West Coast three years later to tie the knot.
On June 14, the state of California began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples after the state’s Supreme Court invalidated the prohibition against same-sex weddings. Massachusetts began allowing gay marriages in 2002, but only for residents of states that allow it (and until last month, Massachusetts was it). California, on the other hand, opened up marriage licences to folks from any state, and South Carolina’s gay and lesbian couples are taking advantage of the opportunity.
“The original plan was just to go to Las Vegas and have fun,” says Michael. “And then we found out about the marriage thing and I said, ‘Well, let’s go get married.'”
The pair has been together for 27 years, but never really took much stock in unrecognized commitment ceremonies popular with many gay and lesbian couples.
“When you’ve been together as long as we have, what’s the need of those things,” Michael asks.
But the opportunity to get married was one they couldn’t pass up.
“It makes a difference that we’re legally recognized somewhere,” Bryan says. “Even though (South Carolina) doesn’t recognize it, I feel married.”
The couple took blazers and slacks along for the trip and went ring shopping in Vegas. After a three-hour drive to San Bernardino, Calif., and a few uncomfortable stares in the courthouse lobby, they were pledging themselves to each other in a most traditional way.
“We were more nervous than we thought we would be and more emotional than we thought we would be,” Bryan says. “We had already lived out the vows, it was just about saying it at that point. For sickness and in health? Been there, done that.”
While couples are getting their honeymoon wish in California, it’s clear they understand the reality when they get home to South Carolina. Bryan asked that his last name not be used because of concerns about how his family would be treated. A lesbian couple heading to California this week to get married declined an interview for this story. Michael is hopeful that more couples will get married and help change things.
“If enough gays go out there and do this and come back to their own states, maybe they’ll have some impact on those idiots who are trying to prevent it,” he says. “It’s going to force a court case, I’m hoping.”
That’s exactly what South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster is afraid of. The top state litigator, who helped craft the voter-approved S.C. constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, was one of 10 attorneys general who asked in late May that the California court stay its decision until a strengthened referendum banning gay nuptials in California was presented to the state’s voters in November. The concern was that gay couples would get marriage licences there and then come back to their own state, demanding the rights and privileges of marriage.
“We would prefer not to have a challenge,” says Mark Plowden, McMaster’s spokesman. “You never know exactly what’s going to happen unless it’s tested.”
But South Carolina’s constitutional ban and long-standing state statute puts it on better footing than either California or Massachusetts, he says. The only other tool would be a successful defense of the law, regardless of the California ruling. And that, in turn, is what gay rights groups are afraid of.
In an essay titled, “Make Changes, Not Lawsuits,” several civil rights and gay rights groups laid out the argument that couples getting married in California and heading back to their home states should avoid challenging laws against marriage. Instead, they suggest getting married and collecting public support.
“Early and unnecessary losses in Arizona and Indiana hurt our other cases, including in New York, Washington, and Maryland, where we lost by close margins and the courts adopted contorted reasoning from those decisions,” the groups claimed in the paper. “And because, so far, more marriage cases have been lost than won, taking on a principled but long-shot case and racking up more losses now just makes it harder to convince other courts and legislatures.”
The groups also warn that lost cases on marriage could negatively impact other equal rights initiatives for gays and lesbians on employment, adoption, or custody. “If we bring a marriage case in which a court says that the constitution does not protect us, those arguments will be harder,” they say in the paper.
Laws in other states further complicate wedding plans. Couples in Wisconsin could be prohibited from marrying in California because of a long-standing law against being wed outside of the state if the wedding is illegal in Wisconsin (apparently designed years ago to prevent underage marriages).
Bryan and Michael don’t expect that gay marriages will be legalized in South Carolina in their lifetime. Instead, the change will likely be driven by businesses offering health insurance and other amenities to couples out of necessity.
“What forces change better than money?” Michael says.
Bryan adds, “It’s going to seep into everyday life in every other way in states like South Carolina. It’s going to cause some things to have to be dealt with.”
While the civil rights groups warned against legal challenges, they encouraged personal challenges: “We’ll win marriage because individual couples get married, tell their family, friends, co-workers, and community that they are married, and talk in very practical terms about why it is so important. And about what it means to be same-sex and married, with all the fundamental freedoms that others have.”