In the Southeast, where legal same-sex marriage remains a distant hope for many, some are challenging the law of the land in a very direct way: gay couples are requesting marriage licenses knowing they’ll face rejection under state law.
Through the “We Do” campaign, organized and executed by the gay rights group Campaign for Southern Equality, roughly 50 couples have sought marriage licenses in South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee–all states with constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.
“LGBT folks are expressing their full equality and full humanity in public life,” says Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Campaign for Southern Equality Executive Director, of the marriage license requests. “[Being LGBT and in the south] we’re trained to do almost everything in our power to avoid situations like that.”
On Thursday, “We Do” plans to wrap up its current leg with couples applying for marriage licenses in Arlington, Virginia. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in Virginia, and Beach-Ferrara expects the couples to be denied. The group will then march to Washington, and end at the Jefferson Memorial where a couple from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Mark Maxwell and Tim Young, will legally marry.
While now for the first time in the country’s history, a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, and last year President Obama became the first sitting president to publicly express his support for same-sex marriage, the South still lags behind. A Pew Research poll conducted in Dec. 2012 shows 56% in Southern states oppose same-sex marriage and overall attitudes toward gay marriage in the south are a decade behind.
In May 2012, North Carolina famously dealt a blow to marriage equality efforts when the state voted in favor of Amendment 1, which altered the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The state’s Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue has stated her belief the ban is bad for the state.
Similarly, no Southern state allows gay marriage and all have constitutions banning it.
This fact isn’t lost on Beach-Ferrara who acknowledges it will take “real action on a federal level” to change things in the South. But there’s power when a same-sex couple in the South asks for a marriage license, she adds, because it shows “what happens when these laws are enforced.”
"WE DO" TAKES ACTION
The campaign's roots started in the mid-2000s, when Beach-Ferrara, a minister in the United Church of Christ, began doing what she calls “old-school grassroots organizing” via family dinners with her wife Meghann Burke in the area around their Asheville, North Carolina home. This organizing helped lead to the eventual formation of the CSE and the “We Do” campaign.
“What we understood was there’s an extraordinary readiness among LGBT folks to stand up for full equality,” Beach-Ferrara says of the campaign.
After roughly ten months of planning, “We Do” launched at noon on October 3, 2011 when Kathryn Cartledge and Elizabeth Eve, a couple both in their 60s, requested a marriage license at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds in Asheville. Beach-Ferrara refers to these requests as “actions.” When a “We Do” action takes place, the CSE alerts the public office in advance of what they are planning.
Beach-Ferrara says “We Do” does this so as not to shock to the public office.
“We want people to prepare how they’ll feel about this,” she says.
Cartledge and Eve were ultimately arrested for civil disobedience after sitting on the floor of the register of deeds office, requesting they receive a license. They were fined and released soon after.
The CSE also has Brooklyn-based filmmaker Ryan Murdock on hand to film couples requesting marriage licenses. Murdock says he feels each couple is “incredibly brave” for demanding marriage equality.
And while the couples know they’ll leave without a marriage license, the impact of being denied is “powerful,” says Eve, who has been with Cartledge for 30 years.
“We went in and had all of our paperwork,” she continues. “We knew exactly what we were going to say, and we knew we would be denied. “Every other couple I have witnessed and spoken to has been absolutely astonished at the powerful emotions that arrive when you stand at that counter and you present your paperwork and you are denied. To be told that as a citizen of our country, no you don’t have this right. It’s heartbreaking. And I was completely surprised that I would feel that way about it. Just really surprised that this feeling rises up and you’re reduced to tears.”
Couples that agree to take part in “We Do” are required to complete training to ensure they’re made aware of the potential impacts on their jobs and personal lives.
To date, CSE has staged three actions that have spanned multiple days in cities from Asheville to Greenville and Charleston, South Carolina. CSE is currently in its fourth stage, which began on Jan. 2 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and has gone through Mobile, Alabama, parts of Georgia and Tennessee.
REJECTED, BUT NOT DETERRED
Though Drew Reisinger knew both Cartledge and Eve, the couple who attempted to marry in Asheville, he was forced to deny them a marriage license. As Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Reisinger acknowledges he’s taken “an oath to the state of North Carolina to uphold the laws in the state constitution,” and that means no same-sex couples are given licenses.
Reisinger describes the moment when Cartledge and Eve came to the office--which was filmed and is available for viewing at CSE’s YouTube page--as “powerful” and a “tragic scenario” for him.
“It wasn’t just activists coming to demand equality; it was people that you know,” he says “They’re grandmothers. They have beautiful kids and they’ve been in this relationship for a long time… When you have to deny your friends a marriage license, it’s heartbreaking and it’s a terrible thing for someone to have to enforce.”
(Monty Garrish and Steve Myszak and their son, Sonny. Photo courtesy of CSE)
Monty Garrish, 46, and Steve Myszak, 41, have been together for 18 years, and they live with their adopted five-year-old son, Sonny, in Wilson, North Carolina, which is in the northeast area of the state.
Garrish and Myszak attempted to marry in North Carolina on May 9, 2012–the day following the passage of Amendment 1.
Myszak said that although he and Garrish were denied the right to marry, the experience was a positive one.
“Standing there, I knew in my head we’d be denied, but I felt like our family was closer than it had ever been. I even felt close to the [other] couples. It’s an experience that we shared. While standing at the desk and being denied, it was almost empowering. We’re taking an action; we’re going for it,” Myszak says.
Garrish says he also told the Wilson County Register of Deeds clerk the couple would be back.
The couple plans to request marriage licenses again as part of “We Do” on Monday, Jan. 14.