Married, Sort Of: The Legal Limbo of Being Gay and Married in Texas
Jenn and Lizzie Wigle are wandering the halls of a bridal expo, searching more for ideas than products or services. Eventually they visit three of the events, looking at dresses, invitations, cake decorators and all the other trappings of the $40-billion-a-year American wedding industry.
Photos by Max Burkhalter
Most of the vendors whom Jennifer and Elizabeth visit seem easygoing and accepting, but there is one scene that plays out over and over again with only minor variations among a significant minority of them.
"When are your dates?" a vendor asks, and Jenn and Lizzie both reply that it's going to be July 7, 2012. The event will be at a Crown Plaza hotel in Houston, which narrowly beat out Omni as a venue choice.
"Oh," the vendor says. "You'll be fighting each other for guests, ha-ha."
"No, we won't," Jenn replies. "It'll be all the same people because it's the same wedding. We're getting married."
"You're sisters having a double wedding?" the vendor asks. "That's so awesome."
"No," Jenn corrects for the dozenth time. "We're getting married. To each other."
"Oh," the vendor says, settling into an awkward silence. There's no open rudeness, just a deeply uncomfortable moment.
Ultimately Jenn and Lizzie don't get much out of the bridal expos except maybe a chance to show a few more people in the industry how little difference there is between a same-sex wedding and a heterosexual one. Their coordinator at the Crown Plaza handles most of the arrangements anyway once the couple picks out what they want. There's no awkwardness at the hotel. When Jenn mentions that their wedding is for two women, the coordinator tells her how they hosted a gay volleyball league just the week before.
All this for a grand Texas wedding, but does it count as getting married? No. Well, yes. Well, kind of, but not really. Sort of?
If you ask Jenn's home country of Canada, where she and Lizzie were part of a legally binding marriage ceremony in front of a justice of the peace and Jenn's friends and family who can't afford to make the trek to Texas, then they are absolutely married. Same-sex couples have had equal marriage rights in our northern neighbor for nearly a decade.
If you ask the U.S. government, then the answer is sort of. After the repeal of parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government recognizes all lawfully performed same-sex marriages as legitimate. Jenn and Lizzie can file joint federal income tax returns, for example.
On the other hand, if you ask Texas, the answer is no, and the federal government agrees. DOMA is still law, and states aren't required to recognize same-sex marriages even if the federal government does. For official Texas purposes, they aren't married.
A federal judge who recently struck down Texas's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage says Jenn and Lizzie are married, or rather, that they have a right to be under the 14th Amendment. However, the decision was stayed as similar cases percolate up toward a showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court.
It's a confusing time to be gay and married in the state of Texas.
Before 1973, no state specifically referred to an opposite-gender clause for residents applying for marriage licenses. It wasn't until two University of Minnesota students named Jack Baker and James McConnell applied for a license in 1971 that the question arose regarding what would happen when a same-sex couple dared to attempt legal marriage.
Baker v. Nelson (the case arising from the couple suing Hennepin County District Court Clerk Gerald Nelson for denying the license) reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Nelson and denied Baker and McConnell the right to wed. Considerable media attention was given to the case nationwide, sparking much commentary on same-sex marriage and building a wave of anti-gay legislation. In 1973, Maryland became the first state to pass a law barring marriage between people of the same gender. By the time DOMA was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, establishing marriage as strictly between a man and a woman, nearly every state had joined Maryland, with Texas doing so in 1997 and adding a state constitutional amendment against it in 2005.
Three years after that, Hurricane Ike hit Houston and left much of the city powerless and dark. At a neighborhood gathering during the blackout, Daniel Bothwell met brian carlson. (carlson spells his name lowercase.) After four years of dating, Daniel and brian would elope to Niagara Falls in New York following the repeal of Section 3 of DOMA, the portion that defined marriage as hetero-only.
Leaving Texas to wed legally has become something of a rite of passage among our gay population. Mayor Annise Parker did so in January of this year when she went to Palm Springs, California, to wed her partner of 23 years, Kathy Hubbard. New York is a popular destination for a lot of reasons. There's no residency requirement, the marriage license fee is a modest $35 (less than half that of Texas), you need only a single witness and an officiant, and the wait time for processing is 24 hours. The whole thing fits well into a week of vacation.
It's also sort of symbolic. It was a New York case that led to DOMA's downfall. In 2013, the case of United States v. Windsor landed the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court as Edith Windsor sued the government, claiming she had been unfairly discriminated against regarding the ability to inherit her wife's estate tax-free upon her death. The couple had married in Toronto and were living in New York when Windsor's wife, Thea Spayer, died in 2009.
The Supreme Court agreed with Windsor and struck down the clause.
For other couples, the destination is more personal in nature. Naomi (nee Lofton) and Rachel Dvoretsky were planning a trip to New York City because they'd won an engagement photography session in a contest.
"We had a big wedding planned at the Houston Zoo," Naomi says. "It was a celebration for our family and friends, but part of me was still very 'meh' about it. I knew that to the state government, it meant nothing even if it meant a lot to us, but then the DOMA ruling came down and we were already going to New York, so we jumped at the chance to do it legally as well."