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The same-sex marriage seesaw

Published August 19, 2010 on Oakland North

Teresa Rowe and Kristin Orbin have waited in line to get married at San Francisco City Hall two times in the past two weeks and were planning on a third. When Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled to strike down Proposition 8 on August 4, saying that the same-sex marriage ban was discriminatory and unconstitutional, the couple was elated. “We were in San Francisco and we followed the crowd to City Hall to see what would happen,” says Rowe.

They weren’t able to get married that day because Walker issued a stay on his ruling, preventing same-sex couples from marrying immediately. But a week later, on August 12, Walker made a decision to lift the stay—couples, including Rowe and Orbin, again lined up at San Francisco City Hall hoping that marriage licenses would be issued. Instead, Walker’s ruling specified that same-sex couples couldn’t get married in California until August 18 at 5 pm. Once again, couples who had hoped to tie the knot in California had to wait and many began to plan ceremonies for this week. “We were planning for the 18th,” says Rowe. “Our maid of honor was driving up from Coalinga.”

But a few days before they intended to marry, word went out that marriage licenses wouldn’t be issued after all. Attorneys for Proposition 8’s proponents had swiftly appealed Walker’s ruling to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On August 16, the Ninth Circuit imposed another stay on same-sex marriage that will last until at least the end of the year, when the court will hear the proponents’ appeal.

Gay couples have been caught up in this back-and-forth with the courts for several years. Throughout the month of February, 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, along with other city and county officials, issued 4,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Six months later, the California Supreme Court ruled that those marriages weren’t valid. Then in May, 2008, the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage; 18,000 same-sex couples got married in the following six months. That November, California voters approved Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to say, “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” And a ban on gay marriage went back into effect, although the marriages of those 18,000 are still recognized by the state.

“It has been an emotional rollercoaster,” says Rowe. “These past two weeks there was the glimmer of light of the end of tunnel and we thought, ‘We are finally going to get married.’” Rowe says she met her fiancée in 2004 at the Church of the Nazarene in Coalinga, California. They were both youth pastors and started working on the church’s youth ministry together. “I knew I was gay,” says Rowe, “but tried to pretend I wasn’t,” because she knew the church wouldn’t approve.

Rowe and Orbin became friends, then roommates. After a while, Rowe says, “I couldn’t take it anymore and had to tell her I was in love with her. I thought she would walk away and not be my friend anymore—but to my surprise, she didn’t.”

That was April 24, 2006—they’ve been together ever since and now they live in Suisun City and are planning to move to San Francisco next month. Rowe says that she watched all the marriages that happened in 2004 as a closeted lesbian. By the time same-sex marriage became legal again, in 2008, she and Orbin were ready to get married. However, Orbin became extremely ill, was hospitalized and continued to be sick during the months when same-sex marriage was legal. “In the midst of that we couldn’t imagine planning a wedding,” Rowe says. “I wanted to give her the marriage of her dreams.”

When Proposition 8 passed and they realized they had missed their chance, Rowe says, “We decided that when marriage was legal, we’d run out and go ahead and get married and plan the wedding later.” That’s why they’ve been eagerly down at City Hall several times in the past two weeks hoping that they could finally tie the knot. “It was with me on phone with my grandma and Kristen on the phone with her mom. We were saying ‘Hey we’re gonna be married, maybe in twenty minutes,’” says Rowe. “Then thirty minutes later, we’d be calling back to say, ‘No, we’re not.’”

According to Davina Kotulski, the former executive director of the Oakland-based organization Marriage Equality USA, and author of Why You Should give a Damn About Gay Marriage, the battle for same-sex marriage rights is about equality. The underlying meaning of Proposition 8, she says, is “You are not an equal part of society and you’re not entitled to the same rights and benefits. It’s saying your love is less and that heterosexual love is superior.”

Kotulski has been married to her wife, Molly McKay—Media Director for Marriage Equality USA—since 2008. Prior to that, they were one of the 4,000 couples to marry in California in 2004 and have their marriage later invalidated by the state. For Kotulski, domestic partnerships, civil unions or registered partners are not the same as marriage. “They’re not on par emotionally or legally with marriage,” she says. “Marriage is very simple and it’s recognized all over the world.”

The fact that same-sex marriage has once again been stayed in California doesn’t completely discourage Kotulski. “I consider it another speed bump in the road to equality,” she says. “The good news is the fact that the appellate court is going to have a hearing in December.” Ninth Circuit cases can sometimes take up to two years to be heard, but this court’s panel—Judges Edward Leavy, Michael Hawkins and Sidney Thomas—have sped up the process on the case’s appeal, which is now scheduled for the week of December 6.

Rowe and Orbin also remain optimistic about one day being able to get married. “When the [most recent] stay got issued, the first words out of my mouth were ‘December is a good month for a wedding,’” Rowe says. “History is on our side, justice is on our side, and we believe—in the end—love is going to prevail.”

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