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As Athens Celebrates Marriage Equality, More Work Is Left to Be Done


DeeDee Kane was living in Massachusetts in 2004 when that state’s highest court legalized same-sex marriage.

“I was sitting at my desk in Cambridge and remember starting to cry at my desk, even though I didn’t have the intention at that time of getting married,” Kane, now a University of Georgia professor, recalled. “It was a turning point and a signal of parity and equity that I think is important. It was very strange to me to move to Georgia and lose rights and privileges that I felt were mine.”

That was the same year Georgia voters, by a 52-point margin, approved an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage (or even civil unions, then seen as a compromise between the rights of marriage and the restrictions of religion). Now, Kane has those rights back, while thousands of other Georgians have gained them for the first time. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday, June 26 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. The decision legalized same-sex marriage in Georgia and 15 other states where it was banned.

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Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Athens PRIDE and UGA GLOBES leader DeeDee Kane speaks at the Unitarian Universalist event celebrating the Obergefell ruling.

For a group of people who’ve been vilified and even labeled as crazy and as criminals, the ruling means that, for the first time, they are on equal legal footing. Yet discrimination still exists and could even get worse in response—issues society will be forced to grapple with in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges.

A Groundbreaking Decision

Justice Anthony Kennedy was, as he so often is, the swing vote in the 5–4 ruling. He wrote the poetic opinion for the majority, including this widely quoted and shared passage: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Legal experts expected this ruling. “The outcome, the vote tally, the author of the majority opinion, the majority’s reasoning and the spirited dissents are all in keeping with what many predicted,” said UGA law professor Hillel Levin.

Kennedy’s opinion—in contrast to the Loving v. Virginia case that outlawed bans on interracial marriage—links equity to liberty, said another UGA law professor, Sonja West. “This might seem like semantics to non-lawyers, but I think it might end up being an important concept,” she said. West was also moved by Kennedy’s description of how same-sex parents nurture their children and the harm that can come to them when their parents are not allowed to marry.

Unlike Levin, West was surprised by the harshness of the dissents. Justice Antonin Scalia is “known for his intemperate tone, but this one seemed especially acerbic,” she said. Scalia called the ruling a “threat to American democracy” and a “judicial Putsch,” and took some personal jabs at Kennedy’s writing style. Clarence Thomas, the only African American justice, argued that slaves kept their dignity, and so can same-sex couples if they’re not allowed to marry. Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts both claimed marriage is about procreation (ironic, West noted, because Roberts and his wife adopted their children). And Alito expressed concern that opponents of same-sex marriage will be vilified.

Change in an Instant

Unlike in other Southern states, such as Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, Georgia officials did not resist the ruling. “While I believe that this issue should be decided by the states and by legislatures, not the federal judiciary, I also believe in the rule of law,” Gov. Nathan Deal said. “The state of Georgia is subject to the laws of the United States, and we will follow them.”

Less than two hours after the decision was handed down at about 10 a.m., Clarke County Probate Court started issuing new, genderless marriage license application forms. The first couple through the door were Moriah Martin and Jordyn Dolente. “I never thought this was going to happen,” Dolente said.

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Jordyn Dolente (left) and Moriah Martin kiss after becoming the first same-sex couple to get married in Athens.

Others quickly followed, including Chrissy Pressley and Jodie Britt, who’ve been together five years and have three children, and Lisa Brown and Joy Carrell, who’ve been together six years. Both had already participated in wedding ceremonies, though they weren’t recognized in Georgia. “It feels like we’re finally citizens,” Carrell said. “We finally have the same rights as the citizens of the United States.”

That afternoon, Judge Susan Tate officiated a brief ceremony for Dolente and Martin in the courtyard outside the Clarke County Courthouse. “I’m pleased and honored” to perform the city’s first same-sex marriage, Tate said, adding that she has respect for other beliefs, but she was “touched to be a part of this.”

Other couples decided not to jump the gun. Kim Mayzak has been with her partner, Valerie Schmitz, since 1997. “She’s asked me countless times in those 18 years” to get married, Mayzak said. “It didn’t mean anything legally, so there was no point. It’s just a piece of paper.”

But the Saturday after the ruling, Schmitz proposed again, and Mayzak said yes. They went ring shopping that night. It was the anniversary of their Atlanta Pride commitment ceremony, “so it was all the more amazing,” Mayzak said.

The couple, who have a nine-year-old daughter, attend New Hope Metropolitan Christian Church, a small congregation that caters to the LGBT community and holds services at the Georgia Center. The Rev. Renee DuBose, the pastor, has officiated “hundreds” of unofficial same-sex marriages there since 1999. She won’t marry people out of the blue, though—couples have to go through counseling and attend at least once service, just like at many more traditional churches.

DuBose doesn’t want to see the gay divorce rate rise to straight levels. “We have the same right, so I want us to hold it in the same reverence and the same respect,” she said.

Although Deal and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens accepted the ruling, other Republicans fumed. “Unfortunately, the court took it upon itself, in another round of judicial activism, to dictate law that should have been left up to the voters and representatives of individual states, rather than the Supreme Court,” said U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who represents Athens. “I believe we are all God’s children, but according to my faith, I believe in traditional marriage between one man and one woman, and I regret that the court did not respect the legislative process that respected the beliefs of so many.”

Regardless of Hice or anyone’s beliefs, marriage equality is now the law of the land. And it brings with it immediate benefits for same-sex couples. For instance, UGA faculty and staff’s years-long unsuccessful push for domestic partner benefits is now a moot point, according to professor and University Council member Janet Frick. “Now that [marriage] is no longer a hurdle, there should be no obstacle to allowing all legally married couples to have access to health insurance,” she said. Couples who are newly married can change their insurance status immediately without waiting for open enrollment.

“The Supreme Court has ruled, and the Board of Regents will ensure the University System and its 30 institutions will comply fully with the ruling,” the regents’ spokesman, Charles Sutlive, said June 26. “We are reviewing our policies and benefits to identify what steps are necessary to ensure we are in compliance.”

USG announced on July 7 that employees with same-sex spouses can enroll them for benefits beginning Monday, July 13. Benefits will be back-dated to June 26 or July 1 for marriages on or before June 26, and the enrollment period will run until Sept. 1. For marriages after June 26, employees should follow the family status change procedure already in place. 

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Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Marriage equality supporters celebrate the Supreme Court ruling near the Confederate memorial on Broad Street—a location chosen for its visibility, but which carried additional weight as another symbol of oppression, the Confederate flag, is coming down all over the South.

For many same-sex couples, just like their opposite-sex counterparts, benefits are a driving force behind marriage along with love. Brett Swartz and Tod Stewart have been together for 20 years. They decided to get married in Maryland two years ago, after attending an event celebrating the demise of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, so that Stewart could put Swartz on his insurance. (His employer recognized their marriage even before the Supreme Court ruling.)

Even though they’re already married, the ruling held meaning for them. “I refer to him as my husband,” Stewart said, putting his arm around Swartz. “I never referred to him as my husband before. But he is now.”

Is a Backlash Coming?

For LGBT activists, the celebration was tempered by the knowledge that their fight is not over, although Obergefell represents a significant milestone.

Kane, the vice president of Athens PRIDE and chairwoman of UGA GLOBES, traced the origins of the gay-rights movement back to the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, sparked by police raids at the popular gay bar of the same name (during a time when bars were often the only safe spaces for gays and lesbians to gather).

A year later, South Georgia Pentecostal minister Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church after being kicked out for his sexuality. He sued the state of California to force it to recognize same-sex marriage in 1970 and “they basically laughed him out of court,” DuBose said, which shows you how far we’ve come.

Psychologists back then considered homosexuality a mental illness. Sodomy laws essentially banned intimacy between gays or lesbians until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. “Being gay was a crime, and the penalty was severe,” said Oconee County resident Marie Williams.

Williams joined the Navy on her 18th birthday in 1992—before the Clinton Administration put “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into place—because she wanted to attend college on the GI Bill. “Homosexuals,” she said, were “actively hunted” in the military at that time, locked in the brig and fed only bread and water, and forced to name names if they wanted to avoid a dishonorable discharge.

No one was even thinking about marriage equality back then, Williams said. “We were looking not to be branded as criminals… We were looking for the right to exist.”

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011. Then the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down. Now, marriage equality. But discrimination still looms, according to Williams, whether it’s trouble finding a pre-school that would enroll a child with two moms or a receptionist with an attitude at the doctor’s office. She served on a committee that planned the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens’ “Celebrate Love!” event last week and wondered who would bake a cake if they knew what it was for.

“The reality is that many, many people still do not accept us,” she said. “Discrimination still exists, especially in places where we have no protections.”

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Worshippers gathered at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship of Athens to “Celebrate Love!” on Tuesday, June 30.

During her Sunday sermon following the ruling, DuBose told her flock she’s worried that folks will be “married on Sunday, fired on Monday.” Georgia, after all, remains a state where employees can be fired for any reason, with no protections for LGBT employees.

“In Georgia, I’m afraid the backlash is going to be, ‘We don’t need your services anymore,’” she said. “‘We’re a right-to-work state, and you let your freak flag fly a little too high…’ Marriage equality might not be a big deal for some people because they can’t make a living wage, or they can’t hold onto a job because people won’t hire them because of their gender identity.”

Conservatives in the Georgia legislature have renewed calls for a “religious liberty” law that failed last year after businesses pulled out of Indiana for passage of a similar law. Some Christians believe such a law is needed so they’re not forced to compromise their religious beliefs—although the Supreme Court specifically said religious leaders won’t be forced to perform same-sex marriages—while LGBT activists fear it would sanction discrimination.

“Driving back from the airport today, I’ve heard reactions on the radio from people who feel their rights are being taken away or need protection,” Kane said on the day of the ruling. “For people who are struggling with this, this isn’t about taking rights away. It’s about sharing and opening up opportunities for more people to be considered equal—across the whole country, not just one state.”

Carolyn Crist and Benjamin Tankersley contributed reporting.

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