Same-Sex Marriage 

Turning a tradition into a right

It was midday as BJ Bjorn and CK Walker took a seat next to one another in a restaurant booth. The couple had just finished buying flowers for their yard, but the windswept clouds hovering low in the sky suggested the afternoon might not be ideal planting weather. Rain wouldn't thwart their day's plans though. Rather than spend the day fiddling around in the garden, they decided the dirt could wait a day. Instead, the newlyweds said they planned to spend the rest of the day looking at motor homes.

Bjorn, 46, and Walker, 51, were married last fall, and a motor home is an integral part of their plans to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.

The couple is planning a weeks-long roadtrip to Yellowstone National Park, the Badlands and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and then to Glacier National Park in Montana before heading home. They would like to make that trip with their three dogs--a Collie mix and two Corgies--in a new motor home.

A wedding anniversary wasn't something Bjorn or Walker, neither of whom had been married before, thought they'd celebrate in their lifetimes, but this year, the couple will recognize not one, but two dates marking the joining of their lives.

In August 2008, a friend of the couple's who is an ordained minister performed a religious ceremony in their back yard with an audience of immediate family and close friends. Almost two months later, the couple was legally married in a ceremony on Catalina Island in California, where Bjorn had lived before returning to Idaho in the '90s.

"The ceremony here was family and religion. You can't replace that, in my book," said Walker. "The one in California, though, was like the landmark one. That one was with people that actually see us as a couple. People who are highly supportive and always have been."

Supportive, said Walker, is a relative term. Friends who attended the couple's California wedding were supportive of them as a married couple, whereas immediate family here in Boise was supportive of their religious ceremony in a different sense.

Bjorn and Walker are one of thousands of same-sex couples who traveled to California in 2008 to be legally married. And while both women say their families are supportive of their choice to marry, neither feels their marriage gets the same recognition a straight union would.

"My folks think of her as a second daughter," explained Bjorn.

"Not 'my daughter's spouse,'" clarified Walker. "It's 'I love you as a daughter.'"

But, conceded Bjorn, "It's still inclusive. It's always BJ and CK. It's not BJ and your friend. So, they have come a long way."

Identifying the number of Idaho-based couples who've crossed state lines in order to legally marry or establish domestic partnerships is difficult. Idaho does not recognize same-sex out-of-state unions, and as such, does not keep official statistics on how many of its residents may have legally binding agreements in other states.

Six states have legalized same-sex marriage: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. However, that number could change rapidly in the coming years.

Massachusetts has been a leading force in the same-sex marriage movement under the leadership of Gov. Mitt Romney, who is a member of the anti-gay Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints. Since May 17, 2004, Massachusetts has been issuing same-sex marriage certificates, and after the state legislature shot down a 2007 attempt to amend the state's constitution, same-sex marriage will remain legal until at least 2012.

More than four years later, in October 2008, Connecticut became the second state to legalize same-sex marriage. Unlike its New England neighbor, however, Connecticut's battle over same-sex marriage has been far less tumultuous. In April, the state amended all of its marriage laws to gender-neutral language, and as of Oct. 1, 2010, civil unions will no longer be an option for same-sex couples. Rather, like heterosexual couples, marriage will be the only form of legal partnership.

The addition of Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire to the roster of states allowing same-sex marriage has happened only recently. In April, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a 2007 ruling that allowed same-sex marriage, and gay and lesbian couples immediately began filing for certificates there. As in Massachusetts, Iowa's opponents to same-sex marriage are not likely to get a chance at fighting the decision until 2012, the soonest a constitutional amendment could be put on the ballot.

In Vermont, which was the first state to legalize civil unions, state legislators voted to override a governor's veto and legalized same-sex marriage in April of this year. The state will begin issuing same-sex marriage certificates in September, and on Jan. 1, 2010, New Hampshire will follow suit. As of press time, Washington, D.C., lawmakers were embroiled in a fierce debate over whether voters should have a say on the city council's decision to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. A decision is expected while this issue of Boise Weekly is on the stands.

Although momentum seems to be gaining in support of same-sex marriage across the country, gay and lesbian couples hoping to get married know all too well that same-sex marriage legalization could be short-lived in some states. California's 2008 legalization of same-sex marriage was reversed by popular vote less than six months later by the passage of Proposition 8 last November, and the state remains an example of just how uncertain things may yet be.

Bjorn and Walker said they knew they had to get married before the November 2008 election.

"I really didn't expect the vote to go the way it did," Walker said of the Proposition 8 vote. "Still, we knew we needed to do it. And we wanted to do the legal part, so that's why the two ceremonies."

The fact that the couple held two ceremonies isn't unusual. Given that Idaho does not recognize the Bjorn-Walker California marriage as a legal marriage, coupled with the fact that the women had a commitment ceremony in Idaho, some may ask why bother leaving the state to get married in the first place.

For them, it boiled down to something basic: recognition.

"The recognition of us as a union, a couple, a partnership--instead of two individuals, as you and your friend--it's a sign of respect for the partnership but also of us in the sense that we're not wrong," Walker said. "You can love somebody and it doesn't matter what their gender is, and it doesn't make you sick, immoral or anything but that you're two people that have made a commitment to each other."

Just how that commitment between same-sex couples will or will not be recognized within the confines of state statutes, however, has become an international debate rooted in the delicate intersection of history, religion, politics, tradition and now, human rights.

Four days after Prop 8 passed in California, Roey Thorpe led the Idaho Equality Summit, a day-long workshop in Boise at the First Congressional United Church of Christ. That Saturday, LGBT communities all across the country were fired up after the previous Tuesday's vote. Crowds of thousands took to the streets simultaneously in cities all over the country protesting Prop 8 and calling for equal rights. In Boise, hundreds of people gathered on the steps of City Hall in dissent to California's vote, including some 70 participants in Thorpe's workshop.

Before leaving the church to join the protest at City Hall, Thorpe spoke to those gathered for the workshop and delivered a short-term forecast on Boise's LGBT movement: "If things are going to happen in Idaho, it's going to be this group, and it's going to be today," she said. She also gave a long-term assessment: "We are not going to get marriage equality in Idaho in the next few years, but we can move forward and work on discrimination in other areas."

Thorpe, who is the state services director for Equality Federation, a network of LGBT rights groups based in San Francisco, has an impressive resume as a gay rights activist. She served as acting mayor of Ithaca, New York, where she was the first openly gay person to be elected to office in Ithaca. Prior to joining Equality Federation, she worked for Freedom to Marry, a New York City-based group working for marriage equality.

Thorpe said no state has recognized same-sex marriage without first taking a stand on discrimination based on sexual orientation, and currently, Idaho has yet to put a law on the books preventing such discrimination. While state activists work individually to gain ground, she said, the national LGBT movement will turn to federal courts and government when it believes it will be successful.

"Meanwhile, the best thing for each state to do is to advance understanding and civil rights for gay and transgender people in their state in any way they can," said Thorpe.

As for whether it's productive for couples like Bjorn and Walker to wed out-of-state, Thorpe said that just because a same-sex marriage from one state is not recognized by another doesn't mean it's without purpose.

"It's certainly not unproductive, especially since it lets their neighbors, families and co-workers know that there are couples all around them who would marry if they had that freedom."

As for when that freedom may happen, Thorpe is confident it will happen eventually. She said that even in those states, like Idaho, where a constitutional ban was passed through ballot measures, public opinion will shift enough over time to overturn the ban, though, she added, it will take longer in some states than in others.

Exactly when Idaho will be ready for same-sex marriage is anyone's guess, although one well-known statistical expert does have a prediction.

Nate Silver, a statistician who runs a political blog called FiveThirtyEight, made news in April when he published his predictions on when each of the 50 states would vote against a same-sex marriage ban. Silver's prediction for Idaho is ambitious, so much so that it would be easy to discount his hyper-optimism if it weren't for his track record.

Silver, who made a recent Time magazine list of the most influential people in the world, is widely known for his remarkable ability to discern the outcome of just about anything by crunching the numbers. He's especially well-known for correctly predicting the presidential winner in 49 states and Washington, D.C., during the last election.

In a post titled "Will Iowans Uphold Gay Marriage?" Silver wrote that he built a "very effective" model of prediction by including just three variables: the year in which a state had already voted on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, the percentage of adults in a 2008 Gallup poll who said religion was an important part of their daily lives, and the percentage of white evangelicals in the state.

Given that data, Silver predicted Idaho would vote against a marriage ban in 2011 (in 2006, Idaho voted for a constitutional amendment to implement a ban), becoming roughly the 20th state to do so along with Wyoming, Delaware and Arizona that year. Interestingly at the time of his posting, Silver had Iowa listed under 2013.

Although both Bjorn and Walker applaud Silver for his optimism, neither thinks his prediction is realistic.

"I'd say five years, but probably more along the lines of 10," said Walker. "But I think that will only come if there is something federal standing behind it.

"I see it going the way of everything else--like racism, premarital sex, interracial marriage--and how hell bent on not allowing it we were, but it just kind of happened and the vote had to fall in."

Jody May-Chang from only partially agrees with Bjorn and Walker on Silver's overreaching optimism.

"When you think about what's happening in Iowa and the other states in the eastern part of country, I can't imagine that we'll have to wait for all 50 states to do something before there's some kind of federal intervention or mandate," said May-Chang.

However, her first reaction to Silver's 2011 prediction was to laugh. Then she added that if straight people were to step into the fray with the same force as LGBT activists, 2011 may not be unrealistic.

May-Chang, who has a domestic partnership in her home state of California, estimates that between 3 and 10 percent of Idahoans are gay or lesbian (that estimation does not include bisexual or transgender individuals who are typically included when speaking of the LGBT community). For the sake of argument, said May-Chang, let's estimate that 5 percent of Idahoans are LGBT and that each one of those people has at least one sibling and one really good friend.

"By the time you extrapolate that, you're talking a significantly larger percentage of the population who knows us, understands our issues and is directly affected by the lack of rights and responsibilities that we're given as citizens," said May-Chang.

"If our allies were to step up in the way we've stepped up, this would probably be a non-issue. It wasn't just the African-American population that pushed civil rights. There were white allies that helped with that effort, and to me that's the next thing that needs to happen.

"If, in the next couple of years, we see three times the LGBT population come out that are not LGBT in support of us, how could our legislators ignore that? They're constituents, too. They're just not this little segment of the population that nobody really listens to, which is what I think they perceive us as. In that sense, there could be a considerable amount of hope. If it's just left up to us, we have a long way to go."

Like Bjorn and Walker, some of Idaho's lawmakers don't share Silver's statistical optimism.

Caldwell Republican Sen. John McGee said considering the current make up of the Legislature, he doesn't think Idaho would be ready to consider voting against a same-sex marriage ban by 2011.

"You'd have to reverse what the Legislature did in 2006, and I just don't see that happening," said McGee.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, a Boise Democrat who, like McGee, is one of the younger members of the Senate, also points to the Legislature's demographics.

"If we were talking about a majority of the public at large, I'd say 2011 is realistic," said LeFavour. "But the Legislature is far older and always so far behind the people we represent on these issues. Legislators never seem to ask in a non-biased way how people feel about the fact that people can still be legally fired from their jobs in Idaho for no other reason than that someone thinks they are gay."

Like May-Chang, LeFavour said straight supporters could be key.

"I'm afraid that if lawmakers from outside Boise don't hear from straight people on these issues then it will take a lot longer than 2011."

When asked if he thought Idaho would ever recognize same-sex marriage, McGee said "ever is a long time." However, he added, it's difficult to determine if, much less when, Idaho will recognize same-sex marriages.

Silver himself addresses the "if" inherent in his predictions, writing that his prediction numbers are subject to unforeseeable circumstances. Past trends may not be indicative of what the future may hold, in part because the movement could gain momentum not anticipated by the numbers. Or it could go the other way, with a backlash against gay marriage, prompting some states to waffle on prior votes.

Opponents of same-sex marriage fall roughly into two categories: those who oppose any form of same-sex union and those who would support a domestic partnership or civil union, but prefer not to call it marriage.

Thorpe said that for the former, who tend to hold those beliefs based on religion, change will come slowly as people begin to realize that churches are not required to marry couples they don't believe should be married. The latter will "learn that the alternative recognition they support really isn't equal, they will understand why 'marriage' is more than just a word, it's a very specific legal and social status."

Whether that status becomes a right extended to every American, regardless of the gender of their partner, could be one of the most defining issues of our time.

While Bjorn and Walker continue to finalize the details of their anniversary trip over the summer, another Idaho couple wed in California last year will celebrate their first year together as husband and husband.

Ryan Jensen, 28, and James Tidmarsh, 35, were married on July 5, 2008, in Tahoe, Calif., at the Chapel of the Bells.

"It was actually the preacher's first same-sex ceremony, but he was very supportive, and at one point, I don't think there was a dry eye among the five of us," said Tidmarsh. "He started crying, and we starting crying, and then Ryan's parents started crying."

After their wedding, Jensen and Tidmarsh returned to Idaho and held two receptions, one in Twin Falls where they currently live and one in Boise, where they met, for family and friends. The couple announced their wedding in the Times-News and the Idaho Statesman in conjunction with each reception later that summer. When their announcement ran in the Times-News, Jensen and Tidmarsh were surprised to see where it was published. Rather than list the announcement under "Celebrations" as was the paper's policy, editor James Wright made a bold decision to publish their announcement under "Weddings." In a lengthy note to readers, Wright explained his decision, saying "a legal marriage is a legal marriage--even gay ones."

Jensen and Tidmarsh had not requested special placement and expected the announcement to run under Celebrations. The policy change was implemented on the Times-News' initiative, but it immediately attracted attention to the newlyweds.

"We feel like we're accidental activists because we just did something that we felt for our relationship was right, and the attention we started receiving was a little overwhelming at first," Tidmarsh said. "We did the same thing any straight couple would do by announcing our wedding and announcing our reception."

For months afterward, the couple was regularly approached by strangers congratulating them on their marriage. In November, at the Prop 8 rally on the steps of City Hall, Jensen and Tidmarsh stood among the crowd, with Thorpe, May-Chang, Bjorn and Walker, holding a banner-sized copy of their California marriage certificate. Like Bjorn and Walker's marriage, Jensen and Tidmarsh's marriage is one of the 18,000 unions that took place in 2008 that the California court system recently ruled would remain legal.

Unlike Bjorn and Walker, Jensen and Tidmarsh don't have big plans to celebrate their anniversary. Not yet anyway. As the new president of the Southern Idaho LGBT, Tidmarsh said their focus is getting through Twin Falls' first-ever Pride celebration at the end of June and then focusing on their anniversary.

Tidmarsh and Jensen both, perhaps fueled by the excitement of an inaugural Pride, are imbued with an optimism for the future of gay rights in Idaho, even though their marriage means nothing to the state in which they live.

"I think it takes time for people to realize that we're just people also," said Jensen. "We're just like them. We're just a married couple."

Tidmarsh agreed: "We're two people who got married, and we're living our lives just like everybody else."

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