After the California Supreme Court overturned a discriminatory ban on same-sex marriage May 15, many of Tennessee’s same-sex couples headed west in what some are calling California’s second gold rush.

Stephanie Barger and Kate Nelson, both of Nashville, exchanged vows with one another beneath the Golden Gate bridge last July.

Barger and Nelson met in college nearly nine years ago on the campus of Transylvania University in Kentucky. Each was the other’s surprise.

“We became best friends and didn’t see ourselves as gay,” Nelson said. “But eventually we realized we were in love with each other.”

Nelson, who’s mother Martha is also gay, said she grew up around gay people and thought she would cease to be a part of GLBT culture once she left home for college. It wasn’t until she fell in love with Barger that she realized she too was gay.

Now, Barger and Nelson are part of a unique group; couples who are legally married in California, yet still are not allowed to enjoy the same benefits as heterosexual married couples in their home state.

Although legal in California and recognized in several other states, including New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, their marriage doesn’t give them the right to file joint federal income taxes or receive federal spousal benefits through social security, among other stipulations. 

Some states, including Deleware and Wisconsin, have laws which deny recognition of same-sex marriages and may also impose criminal penalties, up to $10,000 or nine months in prison, on residents who enter a same-sex marriage outside the state.

But Nelson and Barger like many other same-sex couples took advantage of their long-awaited right to marry, not only because they now can, but also to support the fight for marriage equality in hopes of seeing same-sex marriages legalized across the nation.

“Its not like it changes our legal status,” Nelson said. “But we think marriage is a really important right to have and we want to be supportive of other same-sex couples. This was a step toward that.”

With opinions about same-sex marriage varying wildly across the nation, Barger and Nelson were delighted to find support for their wedding busting at San Franciscan seams.

“Sometimes in the beaurocratic system, they don’t seem excited about what’s happing in their office that day,” Barger said. “But the San Francisco courthouse seemed excited to be a part of this. They felt like they were making a historical statement.”

Before flying to California, they contacted the county court clerk’s office in San Francisco to set up an appointment to get their marriage license. When they arrived, they saw many other same-sex couples waiting in line to get their licenses, Nelson said.

Because of a high volume of people getting married at the courthouse, the couple decided to find a preacher to perform their ceremony. They chose Susan Strouse from a list of affirming preachers put together by a nearby Unitarian Universalist church.

Strouse, a Lutheran minister, met the women on a beach beneath the Golden Gate Bridge where two of Barger’s friends and her mother, Debra, watched the couple exchange their vows and rings and say a prayer.

“When she said ‘By the power vested in me’ I thought ‘Oh, wow, this is for real,’” Nelson said.

Nelson said people across the city shared in the couples joy. From workers in the San Francisco court house and a taxi driver, fellow kayakers on a tourist's excursion to people in their hotel,  all were delighted to find out the couple was in California to exercise their newly-gained right to marry.

“It was like that our whole visit,” Nelson said. “People were excited to find out what we were doing there.”

Now back in Nashville, both women say they are more appreciative of the public advocacy work being done on behalf of the GLBT community because they have benefited from it. Both are now members of the Human Rights Campaign.

“It was one of those things I knew was happening, and I was glad, but it wasn’t something I paid attention to,” Barger said. “But this made it seem real.”

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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