Gay marriage in California gives hope and inspiration to same-sex couples in Nevada
Cameron Park, California
The sun’s rays beat down through a cloudless sky in the Sierra Nevada foothills at midday on Tuesday, June 17. Outside a home on a quiet residential street, a rainbow flag flapped in the warm breeze. In the backyard, about 25 people had gathered to celebrate a wedding. The two grooms, Matt Huckabay and Tony Granados, stood in the shade of an old oak tree.
“I never, ever thought that a day would come when you and I could stand together and be married,” Huckabay said as the exchange of vows began.
A few hours earlier, the two men had arrived at the county clerk’s office in Placerville to get their marriage license. They arrived to the jeers of a handful of protesters. One of them held a sign reading “Gays = Perverts.”
Huckabay and Granados, who’ve been partners for 14 years,were unfazed. The same people had already picketed their home décor store, urging people to boycott the business. The effort failed. Now, on their wedding day, under that bright, blue sky, the men weren’t about to let anyone cloud their soaring spirits.
Having been active in the fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians in their community, Huckabay and Granados were, fittingly, the first same-sex couple issued a marriage license in El Dorado County, which stretches from just east of Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe.
“It was important for us to be part of history and particularly, civil rights history,” Huckabay says of that day. He adds that as soon as the California Supreme Court struck down the state law banning same-sex marriages in May, his and Granado’s fates were set.
“We both really knew that we were going to get married. We didn’t have a long, lengthy, protracted conversation about it. It was just simply ‘Well, we’re getting married.'”
Across the state line in Nevada, many same-sex couples are obviously envious of their brothers and sisters in California.
“Nine miles has never seemed quite so far,” Paul Cain says of the distance between his west Reno home and the state line.
Cain, a legal secretary, and his partner, Kurt Jacobowitz-Cain, a computer systems analyst, will have been together for 19 years next month. They have lived in Reno as an openly-gay couple for the past eight years. In 1991, the couple publicly pronounced their love for each other in a commitment ceremony in Phoenix, Ariz. But according to Cain, that ceremony has little meaning compared to a true wedding ceremony.
“I don’t need anyone’s validation of our relationship at this point,” Cain says. “Social sanction is probably the last thing that we need. … There’s a very big difference, in my mind, between social sanction and rights and responsibilities that are given to us under the law.”
Marriage isn’t an option for Cain and Jacobowitz-Cain, at least not here in Nevada, where an amendment to the state’s constitution—approved by voters earlier this decade—bars same-sex couples from getting hitched. “Only a marriage between a male and female person shall be recognized and given effect in this state,” it reads. That is likely to remain in force for the foreseeable future.
“Discrimination is written into our Constitution,” laments Lee Rowland, a Reno attorney who works full-time for the ACLU of Nevada.
“[Nevada’s] definition of marriage—between a man and a woman—appears in our Constitution. So unlike a law that defines marriage, our Supreme Court is unlikely to find a constitutional provision unconstitutional,” she says.
“I’m really happy that, in Nevada, we made the decision to do our constitutional amendment,” says Janine Hansen, a conservative activist who, as chairwoman of the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, led the anti-gay marriage campaign in Northern Nevada a few years ago. Nearly two-thirds of voters approved of keeping marriage between heterosexuals.[page]
“I think it’s unfortunate that some of the judges and others in California have chosen to ignore the will of the people,” she says. “The majority want marriage between a man and woman, as it has always been traditionally.”
That statement may or may not be true, depending on which poll you read. In May, a Field Poll found that 51 percent of registered voters in California favored allowing same-sex couples to marry. A few days later, however, a poll taken for the Los Angeles Times found that 52 percent still disapproved of gay marriage. That disapproval rate, according to human rights activists, is certainly higher here in the Silver State.
There’s nothing to stop same-sex couples living in Nevada from traveling to California to get married. But, when they return home to Nevada, their certificates of marriage—as far as state government is concerned—will be worth about as much as the proverbial three dollar bill. But, Rowland says, California marriage licenses might help same-sex couples in Nevada to secure added benefits from employers who don’t now offer them to domestic partners.
The big, unanswered question is, “Could a same-sex couple who were legally married in California overturn the Nevada amendment through a test case before the state Supreme Court?” Paul Cain is optimistic, and he and his partner are willing to be the guinea pigs.
“There is at least a legitimate shot, from having talked to a couple of judges here in town, that we might be able to overturn it at the Nevada Supreme Court level,” he explains, adding that, “You might have [Nevada] judges who would be fair enough—as the judges were fair enough in California—to be able to say that, ‘On its face, this is prejudicial. This [amendment] is against everything that we believe in our Constitution.'”
However, to bring such a legal battle gets expensive, so Cain is hoping an attorney at the law firm for which he works, Hale Lane, may be able to take such a case pro bono.
“A suit like that could cost you half-a-million dollars, and Kurt and I don’t plan on spending our retirement funds to do that,” Cain says.
The final decision will rest with Holland & Hart, a Denver-based law firm that will acquire Hale Lane next month. Cain is optimistic they’ll agree, since, he says, they have a history of fighting for gay rights in the Colorado courts.
“It’s not foreign territory for them,” he says. “If they’re willing to do it, we’re more than happy to be the poster boys.”
Paul Cain and Kurt Jacobowitz-Cain probably can’t count on any direct support from the ACLU. Despite the organization’s long history fighting for civil rights, Rowland, the group’s Northern Nevada coordinator, says they are “not planning any such challenge, simply because our definition of marriage—between a man and a woman—appears in our constitution.”
“The big fight here, I think, is one of public opinion,” says Rowland. “People [need] to realize that mature, loving [same-sex] couples that seek out the institution of marriage because of their deep commitment to each other are simply not people that we want to exclude from an institution that has so much meaning—psychologically, emotionally, financially and politically.
“I think everybody has to sit back and listen and hear that this is a real civil rights struggle,” she continues. “And certainly with respect to racial equality, it had a big impact on the country when the Supreme Court quite unpopularly said, ‘Yes, our black students have a right to attend the same schools. Yes, white and black Americans can marry each other.’ Those decisions weren’t popular at the time. They didn’t represent the democratic vote. They represented something more fundamental than that, which is a determination of our rights. And that’s what the California Supreme Court has done. And while it may be difficult at first to accept, I think that people will realize in the long run that this is clearly the right decision.”
The key words in that assessment—as far as Nevada is concerned—are “in the long run.” Rowland admits that changing public opinion won’t come quickly.
“We certainly have longer to go than we would like,” she says.
“We firmly believe that change is coming,” says newlywed Huckabay. “We encourage those that are ready to make the commitment to be married [to] come to California and get married and then allow the national [human rights] organizations to push additional states toward marriage equality. …Ultimately, this is the strategy that will work to change our nation.”
“Good things always start in California and move across the nation,” says Nancy Hugman, who married her partner of 12 years, Eileen Gordon, amid the shoppers at a flea market in Garden Valley—a town just a few miles north of Placerville—on June 19. “I’m hoping that people will come to know us [as] family. … Our family is just as valuable as the next family, and the courts will then see our rights should be the same.”
“Sometimes our fears are much worse than reality,” the 53-year-old former gay rights activist adds. Fear was definitely her companion as she rode in the backseat of an open-top Cadillac through the streets of Houston in the city’s first gay pride parade. It was the late ‘70s. Hatred of gays was rabid in much of the country, and a former beauty queen, Anita Bryant, was leading the crusade to halt the advance of homosexuals, whom she described as “disgusting perverts.”[page]
In Houston’s Montrose neighborhood on a June 1979 Saturday, “there were more people on the sidelines than in the parade,” Hugman recalls. “We knew that, being in Texas, any sniper could have gotten us. …We decided we would rather be dead than live in fear.”
Nearly 30 years later, Hugman’s partner, Eileen Gordon, is an openly lesbian elementary school teacher, supported by the school community and protected by California law. These days, no one accuses of her of trying to “recruit” children to be gay, as Bryant once alleged.
“We’re really hopeful this is paving the way for national [gay] marriage that would give us the federal rights,” Gordon says. “It’s all a process, and [California] is a step along the way.”
Hugman cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriages in 1967—during a different movement for civil rights.
“In my experience, separate but equal is very seldom equal,” she says. “For me, [our marriage] was about equal access, equal opportunity, equal treatment under the law.”
“Even the most familiar and generally accepted of social policies and traditions often mask an unfairness and inequality that frequently is not recognized or appreciated by those not directly harmed,” wrote Ronald George—the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court and a Republican—in the majority opinion allowing same-sex marriage. It’s an opinion with which Matt Huckabay wholeheartedly agrees.
“Thus it was with Jim Crow laws, slavery, women’s right to vote, interracial marriage, child labor, [and] school segregation,” Huckabay says. “The list goes on and on. Those being oppressed must be protected by the courts from the tyranny of the majority.”
As Nevada experiences severe financial woes, supporters of gay marriage say that, by banning same-sex unions, the state is losing out on some much-needed revenue.
“The influx of gay couples to Massachusetts after they legalized gay marriage was enormous,” says Lee Rowland. “It was an enormous benefit to the state in terms of tourism and tax dollars that went for gay couples who went there to show their commitment to each other. Now California has that attraction.
“Those are travel dollars. Those are tourism dollars. Those are state administrative funds that Nevada will never see. So I think that’s something that people need to think about. This isn’t just a matter of morality and ethics and law, it’s also bad fiscal policy to exclude folks.”
Opponents of same-sex marriages continue to wage war. In the Golden State, social conservatives are copying a page from the playbook of their Silver State comrades-in-arms: They have collected enough signatures—more than 1.1 million—to force a vote this November on whether to amend the state constitution to, once again, restrict marriage to men wedding women.
Many newly wedded gay and lesbian couples say they will work to counter the scare tactics they expect their opponents to employ.
“We’re just really hopeful that California will do the right thing” and defeat the proposed amendment, says Eileen Gordon. “It’s the wrong thing to do.”
Already aggrieved by what has happened in California, Nevadans opposed to equal rights for same-sex couples are bracing for further attempts to erode what they view as the sanctity of marriage. Just last month, Nevada’s Public Employees Benefits board voted to extend health insurance coverage to the same sex partners of eligible state workers.
“We are always concerned about the continual undermining of marriage in Nevada,” says Janine Miller, who has lobbied in Carson City for “family values” since 1971. She expects further onslaughts when legislators return next January.
“There’s always a continual effort at the legislature to give the same privileges and the same recognition to domestic partners as married people have,” Miller frets. “It will happen again. They will be back.
“We want to maintain the status of marriage and not undermine it by giving every domestic partnership the same rights and privileges,” she says.
At the opposite pole, Rowland says that—yes, indeed—the ACLU will continue to fight for gay rights in the state legislature. “It’s what the fundamental nature of our U.S. Constitution and our state constitutions are all about, which is equality and liberty for all,” she says. “This is an issue of fundamental fairness.”
“We are making history today,” Nancy Hugman said at her wedding two weeks ago. “But, more importantly, we are all strengthening our wonderful, diverse, quirky community. And we are strengthening the institution of marriage.”
Hugman’s union to Gordon took place just over the mountains, not really that far from Reno. But, as Paul Cain points out, the distance to California now appears much, much greater. Even so, some appear willing to make the journey.