The high stakes
of gay marriage
Same-sex couples have been fighting for years for the right to marry. It may all come down to an hour and a half of argument at the Supreme Court later this month. Here are some of your neighbors whose lives will change.
By STEVE FRIESS
Perhaps because the bizarre confrontation took place in one of the least likely places imaginable, Anthony Shakeshaft was startled and admittedly somewhat unprepared. He was browsing in an antique shop last fall in Jackson when he overheard a man shopping with his wife and two children mention that they were about to move to Barcelona, Spain.
“Oh, my husband and I love Barcelona,” Shakeshaft, 50, interjected in his charming English brogue. “Isn’t it a wonderful place?”
Later, Shakeshaft would realize the couple had agreed to this assessment politely but icily. In the moment, though, the oblivious Brit forged ahead undeterred. “We go to Barcelona all the time because it’s very family-friendly and also very gay,” he shared, referencing the nearby town of Sitges known as a destination for LGBT vacationers.
The couple, he then finally noticed, seemed uncomfortable and anxious in his presence. When he asked if everything was OK, the man replied harshly that he didn’t understand why gay people needed to tell everyone about themselves. The precise sequence of the argument’s escalation is blurry to Shakeshaft, but he remembered the point at which he lost his cool and had to be rescued by his husband, Thomas Toon.
“He asks me, ‘How would you benefit in your life if two men could get married?’” Shakeshaft recalled as he stroked his two-foot beard and sipped tea in their living room in Chelsea. “And I said, ‘That’s a ridiculous question.’”
The question hits a sore spot for Shakeshaft and Toon. For most of their 22-year transnational relationship — during which they raised a daughter — they faced immigration and visa problems that forced them to live apart for months at a time. The child was left in their care after her mother, Shakeshaft’s sister, died in 1995, but Toon, a University of Michigan linguistics professor, had no parental rights because neither the United States nor Britain recognized same-sex marriage. Their inability to wed — and thus the inability of either to become permanent residents of one another’s country — cheated them and their daughter out of the sort of stable family life that many straight couples take for granted.
Such are the stakes to couples in Ann Arbor and across Michigan this spring as the Supreme Court of the United States takes up the question of whether the Constitution requires equal access to state-sanctioned marriage be provided to both straight and gay pairs. On April 28, the high court is expected to hear arguments in four cases — one each from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee — in which federal district judges struck down state bans on same-sex marriage only to have a three-judge panel above them at the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstate those bans.
The 6th Circuit’s ruling, which came down in November, was different than prior rulings by four other circuit courts, all of which found that a 2013 Supreme Court decision in the case of Windsor v. U.S. established a constitutional right for gays to marry. That set up a conflict in legal interpretations, which meant the Supreme Court needs to step in to clarify.
As of early March, 37 states allowed same-sex couples to wed — including some hard-core conservative states like Alabama and Arkansas where popular majorities still deeply oppose it. Most of those states have marriage equality because they are in circuits where judges have struck down bans on same-sex marriage.
SCOTUS, as the nation’s top court is commonly called by court-watchers, is expected to rule by the end of its term in June. Should a majority of the nine justices, as many experts expect, rule that all states must permit and recognize gay nuptials, it will be a watershed moment in civil rights on par with the court’s decisions ending segregation, legalizing abortion and voiding state laws that barred interracial marriage.
In many ways, longtime couples like Shakeshaft and Toon illustrate both what gay couples have lost by not being able to wed and what they can gain if and when they may wed. On March 22, 2014, the day after District Judge Bernard Friedman struck down the Michigan same-sex marriage ban put in place by statewide plebiscite in 2004, clerks in several counties including Washtenaw opened their marriage license bureaus for an extraordinary Saturday session to give gays the chance to wed. They acted quickly because they feared that by Monday the state would appeal the decision and possibly get the 6th Circuit to put it on hold pending appeal.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened, but not before 323 couples wed across the state, including 60 couples in Washtenaw County. Shakeshaft and Toon were the second pair in a line that wrapped around the courthouse in downtown Ann Arbor on that frigid and festive morning when dozens of long-denied couples dropped their Saturday plans and gathered whatever relatives and friends they could to witness their unions. “We were waiting out there in the cold like it was some kind of Black Friday sale for our civil rights,” quipped Lexi Chapin-Smith, 34, who wed her wife, Jen, that day.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette vowed not to confer state recognition upon the March 22 marriages. Within days, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the federal government would accept them as valid. With that, Shakeshaft and Toon walked into the immigration office in Detroit, flashed their Michigan marriage license and finally obtained a green card for Shakeshaft as the foreign spouse of a U.S. citizen.
“It completely changed everything,” says Toon. “Until about three years ago, I always thought we’re not going to be validly married in the United States in my lifetime.” (Earlier this year, a federal court ruled that Schuette and the state of Michigan must recognize the March 22 weddings, a decision the state has decided not to appeal.)
It’s too late for Shakeshaft, 50, and Toon, 73, to enjoy the benefits of marriage as they pertain to raising their daughter, who is a university student in Britain. And, as Ann Arborites Jonnie Terry and Beth Patten note, being wed in Michigan last March does not resolve a host of parenting issues that arise for same-sex couples in the absence of marriage equality in all 50 states. Among other things, the two note that traveling with their two teenagers to states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage is fraught with potential disasters.
“If we lose on the Supreme Court level and it’s left up to each state to decide who can be married, we’ll still be married here, yeah, but if we take the kids to the water park in Ohio, we cross the state line and we’re not married anymore,” says Patten, a police officer. “We have to travel with our medical power-of-attorney, our birth records, our adoption records. If something happens to me and we’re in Ohio, my dad in Hartland (Michigan) may have to make my medical decisions because they don’t recognize my marriage.”
Indeed, something of the sort already happened. In 1999, when Patten bore their daughter, Ryann, the child was premature with immediate health risks that required her to be whisked to the neonatal intensive care unit at University Hospital. As doctors crowded around the child in the delivery room, nobody would explain to Terry what was happening because she was neither Patten’s spouse nor Ryann’s automatically legal guardian. Instead, Patten’s mother was called on to make the medical decisions in that crisis. “I’m lucky I’m so close to Beth’s mom and I trusted her, but it didn’t change how awful that felt,” Terry says.
The inability to wed has delayed or killed several couples’ plans to start families. Michigan law states that only legally married couples can co-adopt a child, a barrier that the Chapin-Smiths as well as Kevin Sharp and Rusty Brach cited in explaining why they’re childless. Sharp and Brach were on the fence about adoption after finding life as foster parents difficult. But the limbo in which one would be a legal stranger to an adopted child was “definitely a factor,” said Brach, 45, who works at Michigan Public Radio.
The Chapin-Smiths, who wed last March and have been together 15 years, said it was more than a factor for them. “As things were, even if one of us were to have a biological child, the other would still have to adopt and we couldn’t,” said Lexi Chapin-Smith, an aide to a state representative. “And it’s also a really scary process in Michigan. The biological parent has to give up their parental rights and the child technically becomes a ward of the state while the co-adoption is completed. Now there’s a presumptive paternity.”
Sharp, 53, and Brach were not able to wed during that brief window last March because, as the opportunity suddenly arose, Brach’s birth certificate was at his parents’ home Up North. “We knew that night there was a potential that Michigan would be issuing same-sex marriage licenses but we never thought to look at the county clerk’s website to see what documents were required,” Brach says. “As it happened, my sister was coming down and brought my birth certificate with her but by the time she got here, the clerk’s office had closed. That was kind of a low point. We were not happy.”
That missed opportunity became more significant later in 2014 when Sharp lost his job — and his insurance benefits — at the People’s Food Co-op in Ann Arbor. While Brach was able to put Sharp on his insurance through U-M, which operates Michigan Public Radio, the IRS required Brach to pay income taxes on the money the university spent on Sharp’s coverage because they weren’t legal spouses. To remedy that, they went in late August — on the 15th anniversary of the commitment ceremony they held for themselves eight years into their relationship — to Windsor, Ontario. Same-sex marriage is legal in Canada and the U.S. government recognizes those marriages; the couple still must pay Michigan state income taxes on those health premiums until they can be legally recognized here.
In many similar cases, the lack of legal recognition costs same-sex couples. The Chapin-Smiths, for instance, are only able to cover both women on Lexi Chapin-Smith’s state health insurance plan because they’re now legal wives, a savings of thousands of dollars a year. Likewise, many longtime same-sex couples pay thousands of dollars in legal fees in order to create documentation like medical powers-of-attorney and wills that are automatically conferred upon marriage.
Skyline High guidance counselor Amy McLoughlin and her wife, Callie McKee, discovered just how much easier that all could be. After they wed in Michigan last March, they took full advantage, legally hyphenating their names and getting new driver’s licenses, among other changes. “It’s free, fantastic and finally not a hassle,” says Amy, 42. Agreed Callie: “All of that are the automatics of marriage. You walk in with a marriage certificate, it’s understood. Anybody can understand all the anxiety that goes through your mind without it. ‘What if I go somewhere and something happens and they don’t count me as family?’ It just speaks to why this is an equality issue, an equal rights issue.”
Callie’s comment points to the notion that it is impossible to underestimate the emotional importance to many same-sex couples of having marriages as legal as straight couples. Beyond the tangible benefits and bureaucratic conveniences, even couples like Terry and Patten, together nearly three decades, felt it.
“I never imagined it would mean as much to me as it does, and I don’t know why,” Terry says. “I really don’t know! I knew we were together forever. I was the one who, we’d talk about marriage and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ But then we got married and I swear to God there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t look at my ring and feel so happy.”