On May 10, my partner and I and our two sons, along with eight other couples and families, and a large crowd of supporters, walked solemnly through the streets of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to the Forsyth County government building which houses the Register of Deeds to apply for marriage licenses. We did it knowing that our applications would be denied–to protest unjust laws, to show plainly who is hurt when discriminatory laws are passed, and to call for full federal equality for LGBT people.
Campaign for Southern Equality organized this action as part of their We Do Campaign. Their ethical basis calls for “resisting persecuting systems by expressing the authentic self; and approaching those who oppose your rights with empathy.” In line with their empathetic philosophy, the campaign took great care to communicate their plans to local law enforcement and the folks at the Deeds office in the weeks leading up to the action. Four police officers on bicycles met us where we assembled and accompanied us on our walk, a development that delighted our three-year-old. “Look, Mom, there’s a POLICE OFFICER! There’s another ONE! And another ONE!” Between the police presence, the mystery fruit falling on a section of sidewalk behind Krankies Coffee, his first experience walking across train tracks, and the lollipop I plied him with once we got to the Deeds office, he was loving his first protest.
My partner and I had both worried about encountering counter-protesters, and how that might affect our children. CSE’s Director Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Campaign Manager Lindsey Simerly instructed all of us not to engage with them if they appeared but instead to focus our energy on supporting each other. I was confident that we could do this because straight women in wedding dresses, parents, siblings, and friends of applicants and clergy members in rainbow arm bands made up the majority of our procession. We couples were the minority whom they were there to support. However, as we rounded a bend halfway through our walk, we saw a sizable crowd of people moving toward us on the same sidewalk. I held my breath as I squinted, searching for signs of their intentions. When I spotted “Legalize Gay” t-shirts among them, my partner and I both exhaled and grinned at each other as these additional supporters approached, some of whom turned out to be my partner’s students from Salem College.
The decision to involve our kids in this action was deliberate. They’re not in daycare and we don’t have regular babysitters yet so we would have declined to participate if we felt that they wouldn’t be safe throughout the action. But the We Do Campaign is predicated on peaceful, compassionate, loving resistance. Building our family as a same-sex couple in the South is itself a daily walk of peaceful, compassionate, loving resistance, and the main reason that we desire marriage equality is so that we can access the legal rights, responsibilities, and safeguards for our children that come with civil marriage. So heading off to the Deeds office that day was a natural detour for us on our way to the playground and beyond.
When we arrived outside the government building, we saw people staring down at us from the glass-walled floors above. Worried that some of them were not happy to see us and might signal that at any moment, I looked back to the warm faces around us as we circled for an interfaith prayer led by a minister in a rainbow arm band. “May love be our ethic. May love be our way,” he said, as our one-year-old began to fuss in his stroller and I fished in the basket underneath for his toy, sweating, and heart thumping in my chest. After the prayer, we and the other applicants headed into the building.
Inside, all was quiet. Our supporters remained outside watching through the glass while we rode up an escalator. On the second floor, our smaller group congregated outside of the Deeds office, separated by more glass from the counter where we would take our stand. Sober-looking government employees sat behind that counter. They were expecting us and knew that our demonstration was to be peaceful and kind. Still, I’m sure they were as nervous as us. Behind them, multiple photographers hovered, cameras obscuring their faces. We knew media might be present but we didn’t expect cameras to be aiming out at us from behind the counter, as well as stationed on all sides.
When I was younger, I liked to say that I didn’t need a piece of paper from the state to validate my relationship. Indeed, my relationship still doesn’t need anything beyond my partner’s and my commitment to be valid. But now that we’re older and especially because we have children, we do need all of the rights and protections that civil marriage offers to families. Opponents argue that we need only visit a lawyer to obtain these rights and protections. Well, we’ve visited a lawyer several times, and spent thousands of dollars doing it, something that many same-sex couples cannot afford, and while we achieved some protection by doing so, it’s not enough. We don’t have any of the over 1,100 federal rights and protections afforded to others through civil marriage, and we’ll only truly know the strength of our legal agreements when one of us dies, when it’s too late to fix any errors or weak points in our documents.
I knew what was going to happen when we approached that counter. I knew that my hands would shake as we presented our application and identifying documents, that one or both children would squirm and want to wander off as the clerk examined them, and I knew that it would be painful when she told us she could not grant us a marriage license. All of that happened. But I was not prepared for how acutely the moment of denial would sting. Grief poured through my body as I stood there, hugging our one-year-old baby, next to my partner who held our three-year-old while he enjoyed his lollipop.
Images from our life together flashed through my mind: that first night my partner and I talked until morning outside of an Atlanta gay bar, our wedding two years later, the births of both of our children, our celebration over moving to North Carolina for my partner’s new job, and many more moments of joy and hardship since that move, including the devastating loss on Amendment One just days before.
I had asked my partner to do the talking once we approached the counter because I knew that if I opened my mouth I would cry. But that surge of grief and cascade of memories of our life together compelled me to say something. The first thing that came to mind was, “We’ve been together for seven years, and married in our hearts for five. I hope that one day we can come back here and get issued the marriage license that we deserve.” Our one-year-old staged his own little protest by crying with me, and flailing too. I don’t remember if the clerk responded, just that she seemed kind, and sorry.
We turned and walked out into the fold of the other couples who offered hugs and affirmation. As they prepared to enter the office one at a time after us, that rainbow-banded minister walked my partner and me and our boys down the escalator and back to the larger crowd of supporters outside who clapped and cheered as we emerged. The grief that had poured through me just moments before was replaced with a flood of hope and gratitude. We joined the group and celebrated the others who came out after us. Each time the doors opened up and a couple walked out, a powerful, resounding cry of love and compassion went up through the air in downtown Winston-Salem.
Since last week’s vote on Amendment One, I’ve been fighting hard to stay positive and strong, to not let despair over our future here debilitate me, and to resist that human tendency to be consumed with anger toward the people who voted against our family. Friends and relatives and total strangers have made the fight a lot easier with a steady flow of encouraging messages, online and off. But it was that moment when we exited the government building as a family, having sought and been denied rights and protections afforded to our fellow North Carolinians, and a joyful crowd surrounded us with love, that’s when the struggle in my heart shifted. That’s when the healing began.
The We Do Campaign rolled through Wilson, Durham, Winston-Salem, Bakersville, Marshall, and Asheville last week. Asheboro and Charlotte are next. In each city, some protesters have opted to participate in and be arrested for peaceful sit-ins to further draw attention to the cause. If you cannot participate in these actions, please consider donating money or other resources to help the Campaign for Southern Equality cover legal fees and organize future actions.
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In which we are interviewed by the local Fox news affiliate. I admit that I was highly suspicious of this reporter, solely because she was from Fox, but she was actually very nice, and her camera man looked deep into my eyes afterwards and wished us well.