Demanding Equality

Despite setbacks like last year's Prop 102, many Arizona LGBT couples keep on fighting for their rights

Shari Wilson and Teresa Hiatt made a little history on Feb. 12 when they received a marriage license in Pima County.

It's been eight months since Shari Wilson and Teresa Hiatt made a little bit of history together.

The two women are still shocked that they were able to walk into the Pima County Courthouse on Feb. 12 and walk out with a license to marry.

According to Marriage Equality USA, which organized a nationwide series of rallies at courthouses in states where same-sex marriage remains illegal, Wilson and Hiatt ended up being the only same-sex couple to succeed in getting a marriage license as part of those equality rallies.

On Feb. 12, Wilson and Hiatt woke up and started doing what they do every weekday morning: They got their kids ready for school and headed to work. Around lunch, they met up and decided to head to the courthouse for the rally. When someone asked them if they were interested in going in to try to get a license, Hiatt said yes.

They walked in with a male couple who had volunteered earlier to participate: Buck Bannister and Michael Koch. While Bannister and Koch were denied, Wilson and Hiatt were handed the sheet of paper that allows them to be married by a judge, a justice of the peace or a minister before the license expires in February 2010.

However, even if the couple decided to get married, it still wouldn't be legal. After all, Arizona's Proposition 102, passed in 2008, amended the state Constitution to say that only marriages between one man and one woman are legal. (Pima County was the only county in which a majority of voters went against the proposition.)

With the easy passage of Prop 102—and the surprising defeat of Proposition 8 in California—many people in the Tucson LGBT community began to wonder whether it made sense to keep pushing for marriage equality. Why not fight for civil unions instead, in an effort to ruffle fewer political feathers?

But Wilson, Hiatt, Bannister and Koch say that for them, marriage remains the only viable option, and they remain committed to changing the law.

At Wilson and Hiatt's house, they sit at a table surrounded by items one could find in any three-bedroom house in the United States. Tables and shelves are lines with framed photos of their children; there's unopened mail sitting on another table; books and magazine are scattered around the living room.

"Our life is no different. I tell everybody, 'We have homework; we have dinner; we have bath times and bedtimes, and we have bills,'" Wilson says. "Teresa and I struggle sometimes in our relationship. We are no different than any other American family. We're saving for college. Our daughter wants a car next year," Wilson says.

Teresa adds: "We're trying to raise kids like so many other American families. We have pets, one dog and one cat. One boy and one girl, and two parents.

"I don't know what people think goes on in here. We're no different. We're just as boring as the next married couple," Teresa says, laughing.

In frustration, there is humor. Shari recalls a joke by Roseanne Barr that says something to the effect of: If you think gay sex is gross, then you ought to let gay couples get married, because once you get married, the sex stops anyway."

Humor, however, only goes so far to ease the frustration of living without equal rights. Wilson pulls out of a piece of paper from her back pocket that she started carrying with her on Feb. 12.

"When this all happened, I suddenly started reading our Constitution. I wanted to learn more. I read the 14th Amendment, which was originally put together for civil rights, for African Americans to own property and have the right to vote. I carry the last statement: 'No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.' That's what we're talking about here in the state of Arizona."

Wilson says she often thinks about the 1967 legal case Loving vs. Virginia, involving an interracial couple arrested for violating laws in Virginia that prevented African-Americans and whites from marrying. The two were released and told not to return to Virginia. They left for New York and filed a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"That case decided (the laws banning interracial marriage were) not allowed because of equal protection of the laws. I don't see any difference, and that's how the fight to marry is going to take place in this country."

To Wilson and other marriage-equality activists, the fight begins with small steps, like going to courthouses and applying for marriage licenses like any other couple.

On Feb. 12, Bannister and Koch went up to a male clerk who was closest to them near the entrance, while Wilson and Hiatt went to a woman who waved to them from another counter. The couples' experiences were like night and day.

"She was smiling and said they were expecting that same-sex couples were coming in today," Hiatt recalls. "We thought they'd turn us away."

Instead, the clerk told the couple she thought everyone should be allowed to be happy. When it came time to take an oath that the information they provided was true, Wilson says she asked—at least three times—whether the clerk was referring to the information they wrote on the application, or whether they were affirming the language on the application that forced the couple to list the bride and the groom.

The clerk, according to Wilson, told her they were swearing to the information they wrote on the application. They took the oath and were then handed the license.

Some reports after the rally noted that one of them must have been disguised to look like a male. But Hiatt says she decided to be listed as the groom on the application specifically because her long brown hair made it obvious she was not a man.

Bannister remembers the women were wearing business-casual clothes, jewelry and makeup.

"It was obvious they were both women," Bannister says.

A reporter at the Arizona Daily Star called Bannister for more information after the rally. The reporter told him a claim that one of the women was disguised as a man came from the court clerk's office.

"That's nothing but CYA, because I was standing five feet away from them. I can show you pictures of them, and you are going to see that neither one of them was dressed like a man. I'm glad the reporter ended up talking to me that day, because they were kind of running with that story at first," Bannister says.

While he was glad that Wilson and Hiatt received a license that day, Bannister says he was personally disappointed.

"If they were going to give out marriage licenses that day, I would have liked to have gotten one," he says.

Hiatt says she could see Bannister was disappointed, even while he hugged her outside the courthouse.

"That clerk was not nice to them. He was sort of disrespectful, and very different from our clerk. I always wonder how Patti Noland talked to her staff about what was going to happen that day," Hiatt says.

Noland, Pima County clerk of the Superior Court, is in charge of issuing marriage licenses in Pima County. About 10 people in her office work the counters. She insists that no one was given instructions on how to handle any of the same-sex couples they anticipated that day.

"We are here to take applications. We ask everyone to fill them out and swear an oath that the information is true. We don't make judgment calls on who is male or who is female," Noland says.

The application, however, is obvious: Next to the word "groom" is the word "male," and next to the word "bride" is the word "female." But Wilson, again, says they were told they weren't taking an oath on the information printed on the form, just the information they provided.

Noland disagrees, and believes that when a couple takes the oath, they are affirming all of the information on the form—including the pre-printed words.

Wilson says there was some discussion that the couple could have committed fraud, but she refers to the marriage-license-application statute that doesn't refer to a man and woman wishing to be married, but persons who wish to be married.

"That would be us," Wilson says.

Bannister and Koch have been together for 12 years, and have lived in Tucson for two years. They both experienced major health crises before they moved to Arizona: Bannister underwent a liver transplant, and Koch was diagnosed with colon cancer.

They joke that if you think fighting for marriage equality is a struggle, dealing with health problems while uninsured is an utter nightmare. They lost their home and pets, but during the crises, they remained at each other's sides and were each other's strongest advocates, Bannister says.

They lived in South Carolina, and they say most people were respectful; during Bannister's liver-transplant operation, the hospital staff allowed Koch to sleep in Bannister's room.

However, during one of Koch's blood transfusions, the couple discovered that an earlier doctor had written in his notes that Koch was a gay male and HIV-positive.

Yes, Koch says, he's a gay male. But he is not HIV-positive.

"He wouldn't even come near me in the room," Koch recalls. "He stood in the doorway. I remember getting all these bad feelings from him. I was kind of freaking out. We didn't know anything about him at that point. I didn't like him, and I didn't trust him."

Since gay and lesbian couples can't get married, they have to go though extensive (and expensive) legal efforts to protect their rights by assigning power of attorney and developing wills. Bannister says he and Koch are protected and that everything they have is owned together. But that doesn't mean they don't need marriage.

"I think it has to do with common respect for a relationship. That's one reason I got away from thinking civil unions would be fine, because people don't really understand what they are," Bannister says.

He refers to a New Jersey study released last year by the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission. The study says civil unions do not guarantee rights, because they are often misunderstood. In other words: Under civil unions, gay and lesbians continue to face discrimination.

"If you have a civil union, you basically have to walk around with the law in your back pocket," Bannister says. "If you don't, and you have to find a judge, by that time, it may be too late. It doesn't work. People don't understand that concept. But marriage? Everyone knows what it is."

Bannister says he hears many gay and lesbian folks say that they are OK with civil unions. However, they have never had to deal with a partner having major health problems.

He also disagrees with those who want to take a state-by-state approach to legalizing gay marriage. Right now, it's legal in Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa and Massachusetts; it is slated to become legal in New Hampshire on Jan. 1, 2010, and could become legal in Maine depending on an initiative on the November ballot.

"I'm a federalist from way back. I think when it comes to civil rights, you have to look to the federal government. I mean, I'm from the Deep South. If it weren't for the freaking federal government, my high school would still be segregated. So, no, I'm not one of these people from Gay Inc. who come out of the northeast and think we'll just do this state-by-state thing, and that'll work. No, because you're going to leave some people behind."

Koch says he doesn't completely agree with his husband.

"I don't see ... politics leading us to anything, but what I do see are my nieces and nephews embracing us. I do see them questioning religion. That's what I see: The change (on opinions regarding gays and lesbians) in peoples' everyday lives, and then someday, it will transcend into politics."

John Allard-Lawson, chair of Marriage Equality USA's Arizona chapter, thinks marriage equality will one day be the law nationwide—but it isn't going to happen until the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is repealed.

DOMA, which passed in 1996, is a federal law that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman and allows states to decline to recognize marriages in other states.

Allard-Lawson lives in Phoenix with his husband. They got married last month in Iowa, where Allard-Lawson grew up.

"We had planned to not get married until it was legal everywhere. One of the reasons I left Iowa was because I never thought I'd be able to live a full and open life there," he says.

When gay marriage was legalized by the Iowa Supreme Court this year, Allard-Lawson says he was thrilled, and that he and his husband decided to get married. His parents were excited, too.

"Friends and family from across the country came, including several relatives in their 80s," he recalls. "We did our paperwork the day same-sex couples could (first) get married in Vermont. It was all over TV.

"The sky hasn't fallen (because of gay marriage). Because of that, social conservatives feel like they have to move as fast as they can right now, because the more data there is as more states pass these laws, the more we understand that same-sex marriage doesn't do all these things they are always predicting."

Massachusetts is a good example. Gay marriage has now been legal in Massachusetts for five years, and Allard-Lawson says that the divorce rate in that state has gone down and is now one of the lowest in the country. In fact, he says, if you look at the states that now allow same-sex marriages, almost all of them have divorce rates among the lowest in the country.

If and when DOMA is repealed, it will be harder for states to continue to deny same-sex couples the 1,138 rights offered through marriage, such as immigration status, Social Security survival benefits and hospital visitation.

Allard-Lawson discovered that when he and his husband got married in Iowa, they had the option to change their last name legally through marriage, so they both agreed to hyphenate their names. Because of that, the federal government and other states had to recognize that change. But they did not have to recognize the marriage.

"If we looked at it this way—this ethnic group can only be (given) these rights (in certain states)—that would never fly. That's not what America is all about," he says.

Right now, Marriage Equality USA is working on overturning DOMA and raising money to help in states where campaigns are underway defeat marriage-equality laws, such as Maine.

"We don't think rights should be up for a popular vote. If people are allowed to come in from other states and dump all kinds of money into a religious message, we need to be doing the same thing," Allard-Lawson says.

Wilson and Hiatt say that in the past, they've been concerned about rattling cages too much, because they wanted to protect their children. However, they say they are now rethinking that decision because of their children.

"This is really about protecting our families," Hiatt says. "If something happens to me, I want my son to be raised by Shari. ... I want the state to recognize us as a family and to protect my children through the rights provided through marriage."

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