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Couples Vow to Fight for 'Little Piece of Paper'

Though not a surprise, the ruling is a blow to many who considered themselves married. Some worry about the financial implications.

August 13, 2004|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

On the day their marriage was voided, Sarah Conner and Gillian Smith were planning a belated celebration of their nuptials.

BluJay Hawk had to call her wife, Alma Hawk, and, on Alma's 30th birthday, say that they weren't legally married anymore.

Conner and Smith's wedding reception in Minnesota is still on for the weekend, and Alma Hawk's birthday party in Los Angeles was interrupted just long enough for the couple to speak at a rally in support of gay marriage.

As quickly as life had changed for nearly 4,000 same-sex couples last winter when San Francisco began issuing them wedding certificates, it changed again Thursday when the California Supreme Court voided their unions.

As before they wed, the couples still went to work Thursday, put their children down for naps and made dinner. Knowing they were part of a long-shot legal experiment, many couples said they had believed they were prepared for the court's ruling. But they weren't, many said afterward -- not quite.

"The feeling I experienced getting married to Alma on Feb. 20, 2004, was the most important moment of my life," said artist BluJay Hawk, 29. "What a terrible phone call I had to make today."

Long a topic of hopeful discussion among gay and lesbian activists, homosexual marriage in the United States had nonetheless been viewed by many as something to work toward for the next generation, perhaps, or the next. Then, in April 2001, seven same-sex couples in Massachusetts sued for the right to marry, and the subject soon became part of a national debate.

Despite the national discussion, few were prepared when, on Feb. 12, San Francisco issued the first wedding license in the United States to a same-sex couple, uniting Del Martin, 83, and Phyllis Lyon, 79, and kicking off a frenzied three weeks of weddings and protests, tearful celebrations and furious legal challenges.

Longtime partners, Conner, 36, and Smith, 35, had already been receiving domestic partnership benefits through Conner's fundraising job at a Bay Area hospital. Each had long before arranged for the other to have power of attorney in case one died or became incapacitated.

"We were already as married as we could be in the eyes of the law," Conner said Thursday.

But they weren't married. And then suddenly they were, the second couple to be granted a license. And then, suddenly again, they weren't.

In practical terms, the court's decision had little effect on their lives. So Conner was surprised at her emotions when she heard the ruling.

"I held out hope that they wouldn't make any decision to void the marriages themselves," she said. "When I heard, it made me a lot more sad than I expected."

That was a sentiment expressed by many Thursday, frequently followed by a pledge to fight harder for the right to marry, often from people who had never considered themselves particularly active in the movement.

"Having that little piece of paper, just the physical paper with our two names, it was really something. I didn't expect it," said Nina Ackerberg, 38, who is studying to be a special education teacher. "Now I feel I have to do something."

The ruling had an unusually large and complex impact at Ackerberg's home in Berkeley. Half she shares with her partner, Kathryn Lybarger, 37. The other half is occupied by two men, James Martelle and Carlos Yanes, whose marriage was also voided.

In the middle of the two households is a bedroom for the two children of the two couples, Jacques, 3, and Rocio 1. Martelle and Yanes are each the biological father of one of the children, Ackerberg and Lybarger each the biological mother of one.

"Initially I approached it in terms mostly of federal benefits ... Social Security, those kinds of things," Martelle, a political scientist at San Francisco State said of his marriage. Some gay men "were even opposed to marriage on principle. Then once we could get married, we rushed to do it."

When the marriage spree began, Patrick Connors, 38, was working "in an office in a cube." But the act of civil disobedience "made me think about my place in history," he said, stroking the hand of his partner, 38-year-old Robert DeKoch, whom he married on Valentine's Day. He has since quit his job and is enrolling in college to study the history of civil rights.

Besides the emotional letdown are countless quirks of modern married life to which couples were happily adjusting.

Kathy Levinson, an intellectual property consultant, and her longtime partner, Naomi Fine, are in the process of buying property. On recent loan documents they indicated they were married. Now, they're not divorced or even separated, but neither are they married. Their car insurance company required that married couples be listed together on the policy, so they said they changed their policy to indicate they were married.

"And my wife, my ex-wife" Levinson began. "See, what do I call her now? I certainly don't like "ex-wife."

In the end, it wasn't the savings on insurance premiums or the possibility of securing government benefits for a partner that brought real meaning to their briefly legal marriages, couples said. It was the marriage certificate, the titles of "wife" or "husband" or "spouse," the long-awaited acceptance.

Jerry Threet's parents had long resisted even meeting his longtime partner, said the 43-year-old aide to San Francisco City Supervisor Jake McGoldrick. After Threet and Seth Ubogy married, Threet's father invited the couple for a visit.

"The trip home," Threet said, "was a very powerful example of how things changed once we were married."

Times staff writer Lee Romney and special correspondent Bob Hollis contributed to this report.

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