Today’s one-year anniversary for the same-sex couples married in Michigan gives hope to marriage equality everywhere.
It was in March a year ago that I got to experience a very special day with a couple at the Washtenaw County Clerk’s office in Ann Arbor as they exchanged their vows. That day changed me as I watched two women step into a world that they never knew they could be a part of, but one that they would now help transform.The U.S. Supreme Court will start hearing arguments on same-sex marriage on April 27. The cases were brought by some 15 same-sex couples in four states including Michigan. This historic civil rights case will decide if all 50 states must allow same-sex marriage. Until that is decided later this summer, the situation we have in Michigan is that about 300 same-sex couples are now legally married after a judge determined that the marriages performed on March 22, 2014 should be recognized.It’s been a year since Connie Greer and Diane VanDorn were married so I went to their new home to talk with them about how the last year has been and what has changed now that they are legally married.
Connie told me, “I can imagine how people historically have felt when big changes like this happen. When we first met there wasn’t even a thought in my mind that we could actually get married. I never even thought it would be a possibility in our lifetime, and we’ve only been together for 17 years.” She acknowledged that 17 years is a long time for a relationship but short in terms the transformation for LGBT rights.
Diane said, “This last phase, when we heard that Snyder was not going to refile and our own marriage would be legal. I kind of felt like, oh my gosh, we’re part of the world now. We’re not this ‘other’ group, we are part of everybody.”
I kind of felt like, oh my gosh, we're part of the world now. We're not this 'other' group, we are part of everybody.
I asked if they felt that this long process is finally over for them. Connie replied, “We know that we are not completely there yet. We are so close to the final step of this journey – and it is a big one! The real celebration will come when ALL same-sex couples are able to be legally married across the United States. And, with any luck, that could happen in just a few months. No one wants to win anything by a technicality – because it still means ‘less-than’. The day that all same-sex couples can legally marry will be the day that we can truly say that our marriage is ‘equal to’.”“What about all those other people who want to get married?” Diane asked. “Here we are in this lucky group, a little over three hundred, and we have this privilege that other people don’t have. So the battle certainly isn’t over.”They see their marriage as part of something much bigger and Diane wondered if, on their anniversary, it might be more fitting that the 300+ couple who were married that day celebrate together.
Despite the fact that they don’t see this process as being over even though they have a legal marriage, I asked if anything has changed. Diane replied, “There is less fear now for us. You know, the fear that one of us could die and the other one wouldn’t be protected in some way was enormous for us and you don’t know you’re carrying that bag of hot stones around on your back until you’ve set it down for the first time. And you really don’t know that you were holding your breath and hoping that nothing happens. With Connie’s second occurrence of cancer and treatment and through me having a stroke, you go into those moments with an acute awareness of ‘what if?’ What if something happened to me? What if something happened to her? What do you do? And that’s a vast unknown. That was really scary. Now you do what everyone else does; you consult your lawyer, you look at your accounts, you pay your bills, you organize your household, and you grieve like a normal person. You don’t have someone stepping in and saying, ‘No, I’ve got this’. I wouldn’t have even had the right to know that she’s deceased.”
I asked them if they felt that fear was a major part of this process. Connie said, “I think fear is a big part. Not being part of the majority or part of the accepted, there’s a lot of fear, not just about legal things but even about what if people find out about me. What if this nice new person I just met finds out and doesn’t want to be my friend anymore, or a co-worker. It’s that constant fear that you don’t belong. It’s like you need the keys to the club. There is something about being looked at as ‘less than’.”
It's that constant fear that you don't belong. It's like you need the keys to the club. There is something about being looked at as 'less than'.
One major thing that Diane says has changed over the last year is that she feels more compelled to correct people.
“There is a permission to talk about it more,” she said. “It’s interesting, I find myself correcting people in places where I absolutely never would have before. I was talking to a stranger in line at the grocery store on the eve of Superbowl Sunday. There was a snowstorm coming and there were thirty people in every single line, going back into the aisles. We’re way back in the store in line and we’re talking and someone asks me, ‘What does your husband think?’ and I said ‘Oh, it’s my wife’ and then we just kept going.”“There are fewer and fewer negative responses. There are still some but then I wonder how bold I was in the past because I certainly know I am saying it more often and correcting people more often than I would have ever and that’s astounding to me. It makes me wonder if the heightened awareness of people’s responses is simply because I’m doing it more and not because people are more or less favorable, just that I’m saying it more.”
I asked Connie and Diane how their kids were with all of this and how much they knew and understood. They told me that their kids knew what was happening and they understood it but Nora, the oldest, understood and had a better grasp of it than the twins, Hadden and Fletcher. She said “They, too, have become more vocal about it and would say funny stuff like, ‘So, has that Snyder changed his mind yet?’ and ‘When are they going to recognize it? We’ve waited a long time!'”
We agreed that being gay didn’t seem to be an issue for the younger generation. Diane even told me a story about mentioning the word spouse to her kindergarten class and one of the kids asked if Connie was her spouse. She said yes and the class just moved on like it was no big deal. “It’s funny to have it so part of life. It’s just so regular for my students,” she said.
It's funny to have it so part of life. It's just so regular for my students.
The kids seem to have it figured it out but we agreed that our age group and up is a mixed bag. Diane then told me the story of how she found their new home when she went looking with her dad one day over the summer.
“When I first came to see the house here, we went around the neighborhood and went in several houses and then we found this one. We had not seen a for sale sign on it yet, it had just gone up for sale, and when he pulled the sheet out of the box he said, ‘This looks like everything you’re are looking for.’ I said it kind of does except for the bottom line. But he persisted and so they called the real estate agent and she said, ‘Well I guess you can see it but I’ve got three offers on the table and I’m bringing them over today. But let me call my client. So just wait there and I’ll call you back.’ Instead of a call back this women walked out to us and asked if we’d like to see the house. She was in her 80s and she walked out and invited us in. I instantly fell in love. I kept sending Connie picture after picture after picture. So I went ahead and threw an offer in right there on the spot with the mix of three. I made an offer on the house without telling her. By the time I got back home they had accepted, so I had to come in and tell Connie I had bought a house. Connie was a great sport about it. “A week later, having talked through it, we wanted to go back and see it together. The whole time, when I had first seen the house, the woman who owns it kept saying to me over and over again, ‘And this about your husband and this about your husband,’ and I didn’t know what to say. She was in her 80s and I thought I don’t want to chance anything and cause this person to have seller’s remorse, so I completely dodged every question. More than I’ve ever done in my whole life, I was hiding. And then we got here to see the house and I brought Connie in and I said to the 80 year-old women, ‘This is Connie,’ and she just looked at Connie and she looked at me and she welled up in tears and she said, ‘Oh dear, you’ll never believe this…’ and started hollering and hollering to a woman who came running down the steps. They were packing and the woman came down the steps and she said, ‘This is my daughter’s partner.’ She told us, ‘When you came and made the offer and you came back to show your mother the house, I didn’t have my daughter and her partner here because I was so afraid of what you would think.’ I told her that was why I had come with my dad to look at houses, for the very same reason. I was afraid of what people would say and not sell to us. We all just laughed and marveled in the hallway and giggled at ourselves. It was just a moment of how silly it was of us to think that this silliness would get in the way.” “Diane said that she loved the house but that this experience with the previous owner made it feel even more right. She looked around the living room and then said to me, “All of our stuff just sort of fits.”
I’ve had some time to think about our conversation that day. I think about my own marriage and how I see it as about me and my husband and not really part of something else, but something deeply personal. I think about what Diane said about how they see their now-legal marriage as a privilege and not a right. I think about how my husband Chris and I found our house and knew it was going to be our home as we looked through the front door window together. I think about how much I love being married and how lucky I am that I can talk about it and write about without being afraid that others might judge me. I think about what it’s like to be looked at as “less than” and what that would do to my self-esteem. And then I think about the upcoming Supreme Court decision and how I really hope they do the right thing. Because placing “legal approval” on the relationships of same-sex couples goes beyond legal benefits; it has far more important social, community and personal implications. Same-sex couples can enjoy their new rights in the form of improved self-esteem in which they feel “permission” to talk about their situation. This permission to talk more about who they are will only encourage more widespread adoption of same-sex marriage laws. But, more importantly, their conversations will help to create a new normal. A new normal where being married to someone of the same sex is just so regular for everyone.
Happy Anniversary Connie and Diane!