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Waiting for equality 

Gay couples wait to see if their marriages stay legal or if it's time to fight again

click to enlarge KELLY AND VICKI :  Vicki Dunning (left) and her wife Kelly Baptista have been together eight years. They had a commitment ceremony in 2001, became legal domestic partners one year later, and legally married six years later. Now they have to wait and see if the marriage survives in court. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • KELLY AND VICKI : Vicki Dunning (left) and her wife Kelly Baptista have been together eight years. They had a commitment ceremony in 2001, became legal domestic partners one year later, and legally married six years later. Now they have to wait and see if the marriage survives in court.

Kelly Baptista and Vicki Dunning each wear two wedding rings. One ring represents their commitment to each other; the other ring represents the day that commitment was acknowledged to be legal.

Technically, they could wear three rings; they could add one more for the day they became legal partners, though still not quite married.

Gay couples in California have many anniversaries. A couple could celebrate a commitment ceremony, domestic partnership, marriage, and re-marriage, besides such events as the day they first met. Each anniversary is a small increment toward the real anniversary—the permanent anniversary. Straight couples get married and stay married unless they choose to get a divorce. For gay couples, the choice is largely not their own.

Each step forward has been held back because gay marriage often has had fleeting legal recognition. More states, however, are allowing gay couples to marry. Even Iowa beat California.

“There’s so much happening nationwide,” Baptista said. “Especially in Iowa. Iowa?”

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled restricting marriage to heterosexual couples is unconstitutional. Recently, the Vermont Legislature passed legislation allowing gay marriage and even overrode a veto by Gov. Jim Douglas.

But in California the legality of gay marriages continues to be hotly debated. Each step toward removing sexual orientation as a legal condition for marriage has been obstructed by a fierce opposition arguing that gay marriage threatens all marriage.

Proposition 22 passed in 2000 and made marriage legal only between a man and a woman. Two bills in support of gay marriage passed the Assembly and Senate, but were quickly vetoed. Gay marriage was made legal last year after a narrow California Supreme Court decision. Voters passed Proposition 8 in late 2008, which famously overrode the court’s ruling and reaffirmed marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Once again, gay couples are left in limbo. The battle is back before the California Supreme Court. Three lawsuits filed against Proposition 8 the day after it passed will be ruled on by June 3. Seven judges will decide whether Proposition 8 amended the state constitution or just revised it, whether it violates the constitution, and whether gay people already married legally remain so.

Nearly 18,000 gay couples married in California before Proposition 8 passed; there were more than 130 marriages in SLO County. It was hard to watch the commercials and pass the “Yes on 8” signs, gay couples have said. For now, they can only wait for the court to decide.

“I do,” but for how long?

There’s a subtle apathy among some local gay couples who married before Proposition 8 shut the doors. Behind their voiced excitement, cynicism is evident. Sure, established gay marriages remain legal in California for now, but what about tomorrow? And if they survive this court battle, what about the next, inevitable, legal challenge?

“It’s been devastating for people, just to have your future in the hands of the voters, now in the courts,” said David Kilburn, who represents the Marriage Equality USA SLO chapter. “It really, it puts huge stresses on families. Although I don’t have children, I have a lot of friends in marriages and same-sex marriages that have kids. Just imagine not knowing what’s going to happen to your family.”

Terre Dunivant and Allyson Nakasone don’t know what will happen. Dunivant remembered seeing “Yes on 8” signs and knowing they were directed at her. Each sign signified someone who thought her marriage and her way of life are wrong.

“It hurts your feelings,” she said. “People think that’s silly, but it really does.”

Dunivant has been married twice to the same person. The first was in 2004 in San Francisco when Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed gay couples to marry.

She spoke nostalgically of the first wedding day. She and Nakasone had been domestic partners, which provided them some of the legal rights of married couples, but they wanted to take the next step.

It began as a fairly rebellious act. Dunivant said marriage represented equal rights to her. She didn’t think the ceremony would have the effect it did. “When we were married, something sacred happened, which we were not expecting.”

As they walked out of their hotel on the way to city hall a limo driver was waiting at the entrance almost serendipitously. Dunivant didn’t know why, but he offered them a free ride to city hall, even though they could see the building from their hotel.

They were married in a large marble room at the base of a long staircase. Old marble statues of naked women holding baskets of fruit watched over their ceremony. Dunivant laughed about it: “So you’ve got all these buxom women all spilling down. It was wonderful.”

That was the day Dunivant and Nakasone consider their real wedding, even though it was later annulled.

“The city of San Francisco wrote us and said, ‘Do you want your money back?’” Dunivant said with a sly grin. “And we said, ‘No, keep it.’”

All of the San Francisco marriages were annulled, but the decision was appealed and eventually heard by the state Supreme Court. In May 2008, the court ruled it was unconstitutional to allow straight couples to marry and not gay couples. So Dunivant and Nakasone got married again.

They were one of the first couples to marry after that court decision. They re-married on the first day they legally could, June 16, at the SLO County Clerk-Recorder’s Office. They will celebrate the 10th anniversary of their first date this year, and in the same year will learn if their marriage stays valid, or if other gay couples will get to have the same experience they did.

“Allyson and I are considered legal strangers,” Dunivant said.

click to enlarge FIRST IN SLO :  Gerald Lindemulder (right) and David Robinson were the first gay men in SLO County to be legally married by County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald on June 16, 2008. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FIRST IN SLO : Gerald Lindemulder (right) and David Robinson were the first gay men in SLO County to be legally married by County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald on June 16, 2008.
A small ceremony

In many ways the brief windows that have allowed gay people to marry in California numb the ceremony’s romanticism.

Baptista and Dunning met about eight years ago. They had a commitment ceremony in 2001 and officially became domestic partners a year later. When they were allowed to marry legally six years later in 2008, they were excited, but by that time it was basically a formality.

“It was just like a little second wedding in a tiny room the size of a bathroom,” Baptista said.

Although the commitment ceremony meant nothing legally, they celebrate that day as their wedding anniversary. They were first legally recognized when they became domestic partners, but they did so for $10 at a booth during a gay pride festival.

They have at least three anniversaries to remember. Dunning said she sometimes gets in trouble for forgetting, but she tends to forget things. She also suffers from a nervous disorder and seizures.

Before they were married, Baptista had no say if anything happened to Dunning—if she were to become worse medically or die. Nor was she entitled to anything. If marriage is a commitment in sickness and in health, Baptista and Dunning are a model couple.

“Kelly’s just been fantastic,” Dunning said of her now wife. “She’s such a support and I think that’s one thing that’s kept us together, besides loving each other, is we just support each other so much.”

None of that counted until they were married, at least not legally.
The domestic partnership provided some relief, yet even as a married couple the disparity between federal and state law means they must file joint tax returns with the state but separate returns with the federal government.

For now they’re legally married, and they play the part. In fact, one of the most interesting things about Baptista and Dunning is how uninteresting they are. “We’re pretty boring,” Baptista said.

“We’re kind of homebodies,” Dunning added. “We do our own little thing.”

They live in a 1927 red slatted farmhouse in rural Atascadero. Inside there are worn wood floors, there’s coffee brewing in the kitchen, and a bowl of leftover Easter candy on the counter. The dining room light switch is decorated with a plastic rooster cover. The dining room is furnished with a small table, a case full of crystal glasses, and a portrait of the Last Supper.

Dunning was raised Catholic. It’s easy to see she’s pained that so many who share her faith condemn her for loving another woman.

“God loves everybody and he didn’t make me this way to send me straight to hell,” Dunning said. She looked at Baptista. “He loves me and put me here for a reason.”

You got your church in my state; you got your state in my church

Gay marriage is a religious issue first and foremost. According to the “No on 8” campaign, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints contributed about $22 million to support Proposition 8, more than half of the total contributions.

Religious organizations from other states gave money to make gay marriage illegal in California.

Representatives from Protect Marriage, which headed the Proposition 8 initiative, did not return calls for comment. Months after the election, the campaign finance committee is still active.

SLO County residents contributed about $240,000 in support of Proposition 8. In the city of SLO, only one religious organization contributed. Mercy Church gave $1,523 to the “Yes on 8” campaign. Jason Weatherred, an assistant pastor there, said church members believe a traditional heterosexual family is the best for children and communities.

Although gay couples say it is their right to marry, Weatherred said allowing them to do so would systematically eliminate religious rights and degrade the sanctity of marriage.

“Underneath that all, we as Christians do believe the Bible is really clear that marriage is between one man and one woman,” he said, “and we don’t believe that the definition of marriage should be blurred—that it should be ambiguous. We believe it should stay as it is and we’re willing to support that as much as we can.”

He argued the issue isn’t about giving gay couples more rights so much as what rights would be lost if marriage is redefined. “We don’t feel that changing the definition of marriage … it’s not worth the cost of social respect.”

Ronald Sampson and Vern Isakson were just married last year, but they’ve been together for 44 years. Sampson is also president of the Cambria Democratic Club and said the movement against gay marriage is not about religious freedom. “That’s what they’re saying now. In reality, they want us to go back in the closet and hide.”

Some would be tolerant if gay people marry, just as long as that matrimony is called something else, local couples told New Times. But for gay couples, the battle really is over the name because that’s where the equality lies. To them, it’s the same separate-but-equal argument that was applied to segregated schools.

Ron Den Otter is an assistant professor in the Cal Poly Political Science Department. His expertise is in public law and he said the issue over gay marriage is much the same as the issue championed by the racial civil-rights movement of the 1960s. However, “There will probably never be the consensus on same-sex marriage here in America as there is on civil rights.

“Of course I see it as a civil-rights issue and I think people should see it as a civil-rights issue, but it’s obvious that a lot of people don’t see it as a civil-rights issue.”

People under 30 generally don’t care whether gay people get married, he added. As new generations become more influential, it’s believed gay marriages will eventually be on par with straight marriages. For now there is seemingly no end to the legal battles. Whatever the Supreme Court decides, there will undoubtedly be a challenge.

“We’re all a little weary of it,” Isakson said, “but I don’t think we’re going to back off at this point.”

click to enlarge TOGETHER AT LAST  :  Vern Isakson (right) and Ron Sampson are one of the older gay couples in SLO County, but they were forced into a rushed wedding last year before Proposition 8 made gay marriage illegal. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • TOGETHER AT LAST : Vern Isakson (right) and Ron Sampson are one of the older gay couples in SLO County, but they were forced into a rushed wedding last year before Proposition 8 made gay marriage illegal.
Still in the closet

Four states allow gay marriage and other states are following suit. Despite progress toward what many believe is a new era in which gay couples can marry, being gay is still far from accepted.

Several local gay couples declined to be interviewed, fearing 
retribution just for having their name mentioned. Nakasone, Dunivant’s 
partner, agreed to include her name but declined an interview. Even Dunivant said she spoke on the issue only because she felt she had to. Some couples 
consented to an interview, but later changed their minds after discussing 
the possible consequences.

And every couple New Times spoke with has a story of prejudice.

Dunivant mentioned an accountant who said she had no problem with gay couples, but whom she later discovered had donated to Proposition 8.

Baptista and Dunning said a pair of older women used to pass their home on daily walks. But after learning the house was occupied by two lesbians, they stopped walking in front of the house.

“I definitely don’t wish this lifestyle on anybody,” Dunning said. “It’s a hard lifestyle.”

Some couples are just waiting on the sideline. Mark Padgett has been planning weddings on the Central Coast for 15 years. He planned one wedding for a local gay couple, but said he was approached by about six others who wanted to get married, but were worried it could be ripped away by the Supreme Court.

“I can’t imagine finally being able or being told that I am able to get married and then being told, ‘Oops, no you’re not.’”

One way or another, gay couples will soon have an answer. The court will decide whether Proposition 8 should stay in place and if the gay couples who got married really should have.

Staff writer Colin Rigley can be reached at


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