Growing up secretly gay in Wyoming in the 1980s, I assumed I’d never get married. And I certainly never thought I’d be squeezing it in between a Thursday morning budget meeting at work, and grilling burgers for old friends crashing with us on a cross-country road trip.
A marriage is an event – one we have all attended countless times. But it is also a state of being, a way that we exist during our precious, short lives, a way we not only secure our rights as families, but also a way we record our vital acts, the milestones of our lives.
As the seemingly intractable bans on same-sex marriage around the country and the world melt away faster and faster, judicial decisions that change the rules have come quickly and unexpectedly in recent weeks. In Colorado, where my partner of 16 years and I now live, federal and state courts seem to be in a footrace to determine which constitution – our nation’s, or our state’s – will be first to rule our unequal treatment untenable.
This summer, federal judges have handed down a continuing series of rulings affirming that marrying whom you wish is a fundamental right outside the reach of the government or the voters to deny. One such ruling came from the United States Courthouse here in Denver, where an appellate court struck down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban.
While the judges stayed that ruling, pending possible review by the U.S. Supreme Court, the county clerk in nearby Boulder determined her oath of office to uphold the constitution obligated her to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples immediately. Meanwhile, other same-sex couples suing in Colorado’s state courts won a similar ruling. When Colorado’s conservative attorney general lost a lawsuit to force Boulder officials to stop issuing licenses, Denver’s openly gay clerk decided to follow suit and stand with her colleague. The clerk in Pueblo joined the effort the next day.
It was when Denver Clerk Debra Johnson announced her move last Thursday that my partner picked up the phone and asked what I was up to that afternoon. Within an hour, he and I were in Johnson’s office downtown, filling out paperwork, before a battery of TV cameras and note-scribbling reporters. An office dedicated to the usually dry business of recording deeds and details had become the crest of a wave of civil disobedience.
Guy and I held a commitment ceremony in Wyoming in 2002 when, after four years together, we ruefully concluded we would never be able to legally wed but wanted deeply to declare our love and our partnership in front of family and friends. The ceremony may have been stateless but the power we felt, exchanging rings with 40 sets of eyes and smiles trained on us, was profound and unforgettable. We’ve considered ourselves married ever since, regardless of politics and the increasingly absurd legal restrictions.
Then, Thursday, in a matter of minutes, by signing a certificate, the spiritual and emotional became legal and official. My husband joked that after 12 years of marriage, the long delayed paperwork had finally shown up.
Courts, both state and federal, continue to sort out whether the certificate we signed will retain the force of law, or if, once all the cases are dispensed with, we will have to return to Debra Johnson’s office for a re-do. Which we will do, as often as we need to.
But in the meantime, in the vital records of our community, we are recognized as a couple for now and for posterity. As an amateur genealogist I have relied on people like Debra Johnson, who throughout the nation’s history have been charged with the duty to record who lived, who died, who loved one another, and when, and where. And now we too are part of the great catalog of human lives that existed, that mattered, and that will be remembered.
Couples like us have across all of time gone mostly unseen, unspoken-of, unrecorded, as if we did not exist, somehow could not even be acknowledged to have existed. Those days are clattering to a halt now thanks to the love and the tireless agitation of millions of people. We are proud to have played our small part and still mystified why it was for so long seen as such a terrible threat.
Debra Johnson came to congratulate us at the end of our interviews and we thanked her – for being a public servant of whom we could be proud, and by taking to heart her role in recording our community’s life. I told her the records she stewards are precious, the vital realities of our lives and the footprints we leave behind.
She smiled as if to say, leave good ones.
Together, as all of us reach for and grasp our rights and our dignity, we are doing just that.
Executive Director, Matthew Shepard Foundation