Love in Tennessee
The recent Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8 have led many gay, lesbian, and otherwise queer Tennesseans to reconsider the options available to them in legalizing their partnerships. For many, this means obtaining a marriage license in another state; for others, it is a sign that a change is coming for them and it may come sooner than they thought.
For Eric Gatlin and his partner Jon Harper (middle, above photo), getting engaged happened right around the time of the Supreme Court rulings, but not entirely because of them. “I always joked around that the day it became legal was the day I proposed,” said Gatlin. “The Supreme Court ruling was on the 26th, and on the 26th I went to look at some rings, and two days later, I asked Jon if he’d spend the rest of his life with me and if he did, I’d buy the rings.”
But, said Harper, “We’re really at a natural point in our lives and in our relationship. I have no doubt in my mind that Eric is my life partner and I’ll be with him for the rest of my life.” He continued, “I don’t want people standing up and saying, ‘Let’s get married because the Supreme Court says we can now.’ If this is what they want to do, great, but it needs to be because of the actual relationship and the love they have for each other and the commitment they’re making, not just because someone said they can do it.”
Before the rulings, “I considered us married,” said Gatlin. Their employers gave them equal benefits to legally married couples. “The commitment level was already there, the only thing missing was the legally binding terminology,” Gatlin continued. “But I’m more willing and open to marriage now because it’s not going to be just a ceremony not recognized by anybody.”
“It was really quite enlightening for the Supreme Court to make their decision,” agreed Harper. “I really see change in the paradigm of society right now. You’ve got so many big things happening, not just the Supreme Court ruling. It’s like dominoes falling now.”
Lots of gay couples in Tennessee are trying to be practical about the possibility of legislative support for gay marriage making its way to their state. “I was very surprised and happy to hear about [the rulings on DOMA and Prop 8],” said Rae Moore. “But we planned our lives as if it wasn’t going to happen in our lifetime.” Moore and her partner Melissa (right, above photo) are planning to marry in Washington D.C. next year. “If you really want something, you will find a way to make it happen,” she said.
Although their marriage will not be recognized by the state of Tennessee, they are finding support in other areas. Like Gatlin and Harper, benefits for same-sex couples are equal to heterosexual couples through Melissa’s employer. Rae is Native American and her tribe will cover their future children’s medical care—Rae is six months pregnant with their first child.
“When I met my fiancé and we talked about having kids, she said she wanted a ‘brown’ butt running around,” she remembered with a laugh. “I’m very happy. Our child will grow up with lots of people who already love her. We have so much support, it is truly a blessing.”
The Moores are lucky to have the support they do, especially because of the tricky road ahead of them having their family legally recognized in their home state. When their child is born, “Melissa can’t legally be on the birth certificate, so she will be a legal godparent,” explained Melissa. “When she [their child] comes of a reasonable age, we will explain it and Melissa will adopt her.”
For the Moores, Gatlin, and Harper, Tennessee’s lack of marriage acceptance is tricky to navigate in one way. For Brandon Thomas and his partner Michael (left, above photo), it is tricky in entirely another.
“Since he’s transgender and hasn’t changed the gender on his documents yet, we can legally get married in any state,” Thomas explained. “However, we would legally be considered a straight couple, and that’s not our reality. It’s a complex issue, since gender and sexuality are a lot less black and white than people think, and nationwide marriage equality would save a lot of people a lot of heartache and erasure.”
For Thomas, the Supreme Court rulings represent an important mile maker for his identity as a queer person from the South. “It reminds me of something Michael said when we were in the process of becoming Brothers of Sigma Phi Beta, a queer/allied fraternity,” remembered Thomas. “As a trans-man, he’d never entertained the idea of joining a fraternity, because it wasn’t an opportunity he believed was open to him. Once it was, though, he realized how much he wanted the experience and how positive it would be for him.”
“The Supreme Court rulings have done something similar for a lot of people, especially people living in Southern states,” he continued. “They’ve realized that maybe marriage is a possibility for them. It’d definitely a positive thing to see people start to feel like acceptance is within their grasp.”
Even though the rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 don’t directly affect Thomas, “the rulings mean we’re one step closer to being able to have our relationship recognized,” said Thomas. “We believe that someday, we’ll finally be able to be recognized in our home state, as two Tennessee boys who want to commit to each other for life.”