First Person: The Meaning of Marriage for Everyone

By Pamela Brown
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 09:58:00 AM

What if you couldn’t marry the person you love? Can you remember your wedding day? I can… 

We didn’t have time to invite our family and friends, so we had to rely on strangers to be our witnesses. There was no cake or champagne or flowers. We were dressed for work and we used rings we were wearing for our ceremony. We weren’t given the luxury of time to plan the wedding of our dreams but we were given a window of opportunity to get married and we took it. And when we walked out of San Francisco City Hall with a marriage license, that feeling is something we will never forget, and I carry that license with me wherever I go. 

When you are told you can’t have something because you are different, you pretend it doesn’t matter or that you don’t care. At least that’s what I did. 

After five years together, Shauna and I wanted people to know that we were in love. We wanted our relationship to be understood, and we wanted our families and friends to come together to recognize and celebrate our commitment to one another. We wanted to marry, but we were told we couldn’t so we had a commitment ceremony instead. 

We picked a location close to our home. I went to reserve the space and they asked what kind of function we were to have. I said “a commitment ceremony” and she looked back with a blank stare. As she went through the paperwork, she got to the piece about how to apply for a marriage license. She said “you won’t need this one” and threw it in the garbage can. I didn’t know how to respond. As we sent out invitations, worked with caterers, picked out our rings, we constantly had to explain what we were doing. If only we could marry, everyone would understand. 

When we had our commitment ceremony, it was a wonderful day. We had cake, champagne and flowers. My mother wrote a wonderful piece that she read, Shauna’s dad read a poem we had selected. In place of a marriage license, we had a witness document pledging our commitment to one another that everyone signed. Many said it reminded them of a wedding … but it wasn’t. 

To protect our relationship, we registered as domestic partners and continued our role of having to explain what that meant to insurance companies, employers, car rental agencies … the list goes on and on and on. Our relationship means nothing to the federal government and when we leave California, no explanations are necessary. Our relationship doesn’t matter because it is no longer recognized. Every vacation is tempered by evaluating our concerns of going to a place where we will be legal strangers. Is it worth that risk … what if one of us gets sick? 

So when Mayor Newsom said gay and lesbian couples should have the right to marry the person they love and he opened the doors at City Hall, Shauna and I got up at 5:30 a.m. the next day to finally get married. And we weren’t the only ones. We stood in line with hundreds and eventually thousands of other couples who wanted to marry the person they loved. When they said “by the powers granted to me by the City and County of San Francisco, we now pronounce you spouses for life,” we cried. It really mattered, no matter how much I had pretended it didn’t… 

When we returned to work, our co-workers congratulated us. We received calls from our friends and family. Our neighbors even brought by gifts. Though I don’t mind being different, there was a great deal of comfort when our relationship was finally understood and being married brought that home. 

Since that moment, it has been an emotional roller coaster. Six months after being married, our licenses were taken away. Our families were blamed for election results, including numerous state constitutions being changed to ban marriage equality. We’ve told our stories to legislators across the state and twice celebrated passage of a bill that would allow our families the right to marry, only to have our governor veto it both times. We celebrated when a trial court judge ruled it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry and then were stunned when that ruling was overturned. We even stood for hours in a Target parking lot trying to encourage fellow Californians to decline to sign an initiative that would change our Constitution and forever deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. Despite that effort, we will likely face such an initiative in November. 

But on Thursday, May 15, the California Supreme Court ruled that marriage is a constitutional right that no one should be denied. It is a day we will never forget and now Shauna and I can sit down to plan the wedding of our dreams for a marriage we hope no one will ever take away. 

In California, we value our diversity and recognize that despite our differences, our lives are interwoven, and we share common hopes and dreams for our future. This Supreme Court decision recognizes that the time has come for lesbian and gay couples to be woven into the fabric of California families and to have the freedom to enter into the civil institution of marriage. We, as lesbian and gay people, are your neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members. This decision means the world to Shauna and me and couples like us. We hope that all Californians stand together to support this decision and recognize our society is stronger when we are all treated fairly.