East Tennessee couple wins their Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding

When the ACLU announced its My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding contest last December, Megan and Lindsey Smith had already started a digital community of their own for marriage equality in Tennessee, with the Facebook group TN Marriage Equality.

At the beginning of 2013, while on vacation at a bed and breakfast in Waynesville, North Carolina, Megan and Lindsey experienced discrimination as a same-sex couple for the first time. This experience left both feeling discouraged, but simultaneously energized to make a difference. “Before the bed and breakfast incident, we hadn’t experienced, as a couple, anything that made us feel like that,” Lindsey said.

“I had never really thought of myself as an advocate until that happened,” Megan added. “And it’s not that we didn’t care about LGBT issues before, it’s just that until you experience something, you don’t realize its impact on how you feel. Once that happened to us, it really opened our eyes to what LGBT people—especially in the South—deal with.”

It took Megan and Lindsey six months to process their experience. “I think we were so shocked and it took us a few months to realize what had even happened because there was nothing that we could legally do about it since LGBT community is not a protected class in North Carolina, just as it’s not in Tennessee,” Megan explained.

In June 2013 Megan and Lindsey blogged about their experience, ultimately drawing national attention to their plight. The couple began attending Tennessee Pride and equality events, including speaking at the Marriage Equality Day rally in Nashville and the Chattanooga hearings on partner benefits, as well as organizing their own digital resources for their pending non-profit.

In August 2013, knowing the same-sex marriage was banned in Tennessee, Megan and Lindsey went to the Hamilton County Clerk’s Office to apply for a marriage license. Like couples across the state, they were denied.

In December 2013, the couple decided to enter the ACLU My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding contest. Initially only open to couples who lived in a state bordering a marriage equality state, Megan and Lindsey thought that their entry might be disqualified. But that didn’t stop the energized couple.

“We thought it was worth a shot, so we wrote into the judges and launched a big campaign and had a bunch of our friends write letters,” Lindsey said. “Apparently they had already been kicking around the idea of opening it up, but we gave them a little boost knowing from our perspective what the contest would be to couples in other states.”

Once they knew that their entry wouldn’t be disqualified, there was no stopping the couple as they campaigned endlessly with media, family and friends to secure a spot in the Top 5, hoping to win $5,000 toward their dream wedding.

As the marriage equality landscape changed so quickly, and the contest was opened up to all state, the contest was extended past its near-Valentine’s end. Megan and Lindsey continued their campaign, ultimately being announced winners in mid-April.

Since winning it’s been a whirlwind for the couple. Between meeting the other four couples with the ACLU in New York, the couple celebrated with their (Il)legal marriage ceremony with family and friends in Tennessee.

“I held her hand in front of our friends and family, put a ring on it and said, ‘I do,’” Megan shared. “In our eyes we’re as married as we can be but to Tennessee, we’re nothing.”

And while they can’t change the legal status of their marriage in Tennessee just yet, the couple did enjoy their legal wedding last month in Washington, D.C..

What may have started as a bit of a nightmare, turned into the ultimate fairytale complete with a horse drawn carriage through the mountains and a carriage arrival at the steps of the Supreme Court.

“It was magical,” Megan said after the wedding. “During the carriage ride people were stopping to take pictures and yell congrats. Then at the ceremony,  groups of people stood in the rain to watch us get married and clapped when we kissed. I can't believe how much support we got from total strangers. It was such a wonderful experience.

And like the advocates they have become, Megan reminds us that despite getting as many legal protections as they can, including a legal marriage certificate, the couple” couple crossed the imaginary line and still came back to Tennessee as legal strangers.” 

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