With the U.S. Supreme Court’s freedom to marry decision just around the corner, we’re embarking on a blog series to document the fight to bring marriage equality to the Commonwealth, and – we hope – to every state later this month. Check back throughout the next month to learn about the history and real world impact of marriage equality.
by Joanne Harris (left), Plaintiff in the ACLU of Virginia’s Freedom to Marry Case
People often ask Jessica and me about our journey towards marriage. We always find this question confusing. We immediately wonder, “What do they mean?” Is this person questioning our journey towards love and commitment or are they questioning our journey through the injustice and prejudice in our fight for marriage equality? If the question is about our love journey, it’s like any other happy couple, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender. When our eyes met for the first time, something beautiful shifted in my inner being; wishes began, memories started, as did our life together. If the question has to do with being treated as a second-class citizen and not being extended the right of marriage just because we are a same sex couple then that’s a completely different story.
In 2009, after I gave birth to our son Jabari, my youngest brother, Johnny, married his wife, Courtney. I remember the day that Johnny told me that he was planning to ask Courtney to be his wife. I’m not ashamed to say that along with the feeling of excitement for Johnny, I also felt envy and then sadness. I thought to myself, how is it possible that Johnny and Courtney who met the same year that Jessica and I did are able to enjoy the rights of marriage, yet we could not. In that moment, Johnny also reminded me that after their marriage, Courtney would become the legal parent to my nephew Randy. Again, I should have felt nothing but elation for Johnny, Courtney, and Randy, yet I had more questions. Why was Jabari not privileged to receive the same rights as his cousin, Randy? He also has two loving parents. Why was our son not privied to Jessica’s name on his birth certificate as his parent, or not privied to her health insurance? At this point in our lives, Jessica wasn’t able to sign pediatric health documents, register him for daycare, or even authorize field trips.
Why are we categorized so differently? How is it possible that Johnny and Courtney’s love is seen as greater and more important than ours? Why do we still struggle to understand that human beings should be offered dignity and respect? Haven’t we learned from the past?
As a bridesmaid in Johnny and Courtney’s wedding, I looked out upon my family as the pastor talked about commitment and love and how these aspects of a couple make families and honor the sanctity of marriage. Yes, pastor, they do. In that moment I made a promise to myself that regardless of whether the world changed to extend the right to marriage for Jessica and me, I would take any opportunity presented to me to fight injustice. I wanted to ensure that Jabari grew up in a nation where he was honored, a nation where he was treated with dignity and respect and extended equal rights. I wanted Jabari to be proud of his parents fight for equality.
Fortunately, five years later on October 6, 2014, after countless interviews, questions, comments, pleading, fighting and near exhaustion from being treated like “an other”; I was able to stand proud with the love of my life and our son in the Staunton City Circuit Court House and proclaim, “We are here to apply for our marriage license.” It was with a blank, perhaps sour face, the Assistant Clerk offered us a marriage application and explained the paperwork. There were no people cheering in our courthouse, no congratulations, and no best wishes, but there were also no fires, no crumbling walls, and no bloodshed. There were only the sounds of justice and equality and the tears of happiness we shed.
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