Camryn and Jamara Indigo. Photo by Emily Gurnon
story & photos by EMILY GURNON
CAMRYN INDIGO AND HER PARTNER, JAMARA INDIGO, had never been particularly keen on the idea of gay marriage, or marriage in general, for that matter.
"We were certainly aware that a lot of lesbians and gays wanted to get married and were working very hard for that cause. But my personal belief had always been, I don't need the patriarchy to say our relationship is OK. I'm very happy with our relationship," said Camryn, 42, a computer technician at Northcoast Children's Services.
Then came the historic decision by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to legalize gay marriage in that city. The resulting onslaught of gay couples to San Francisco City Hall, which began Feb. 12, made national and international news, and other cities and states began to follow suit.
In response, President Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, saying it threatened "the most fundamental institution of civilization."
Something in Camryn clicked. "I thought, how dare he?" she said. "How dare he say that my family is less worthy of equal protection than his?"
The decision was made: Camryn proposed, and the two women decided to make the trip to San Francisco. "What I realized for myself was not so much that I needed the patriarchy to approve my relationship, but I needed to let people know that we have a relationship and our family is really important. We've seen firsthand the effects of not being able to have these legal protections that other people just take for granted," Camryn said.
They were married on March 11, the day the California Supreme Court put a stop to the practice pending the outcome of a legal challenge. By the time the court order took effect, San Francisco had issued a total of 4,037 marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The Indigos (they took a common surname 12 years ago) are one of an estimated nine Humboldt County gay couples who became "spouses for life," according to information from the San Francisco County Recorder's Office.
They did it for both personal and political reasons -- firmly believing that gay marriage is a civil rights issue. According to Lambda, the national gay and lesbian civil rights organization, legal marriage carries with it more than 1,138 federal and state protections, benefits and responsibilities. Without marriage, gay and lesbian couples are denied the rights heterosexual couples have come to expect: Gays cannot collect on their deceased partner's Social Security and do not automatically inherit property; a non-biological parent cannot adopt her partner's child in some states; gays are often denied "next of kin" status, and therefore visiting rights, at hospitals when their partners fall ill.
The Indigos, who live in Eureka, have been together since 1989, after they met at a softball game in Madison, Wis. They eventually decided to escape the cold winters, and made Humboldt County their new home in 1999. Jamara, 39, now a manager at Kinko's in Arcata, said she knew right away that Camryn was "the one."
"I remember talking to one of my friends in Madison after I met her, and I was literally jumping around a parking lot, and I said, `I found her, I found the person, this is her!'" Even though she was then in a relationship with a different woman, as was Camryn, "I knew I would be with her," Jamara said. "And I knew I would be with her forever.
"I am as sure that she is part of what makes me me as much as I'm sure I'm sitting here. The sky is blue, the sun rises and Cam's with me. That's the way it is."
Camryn agreed. "I feel like I started living when we met. I feel like I can do anything; I feel like I'm stronger. Everything about my life is so much richer. It's been an incredible journey, and it will go on being an incredible journey regardless of what happens with the license."
The state Supreme Court heard arguments last week on the limited legal question of whether the mayor overstepped his authority by authorizing the marriage licenses in defiance of state law. The court has 90 days to issue a ruling; as of press time, that ruling had not yet come.
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Bob Wick and his partner of nine years were just sitting around their McKinleyville home talking about the gay marriage brouhaha when Wick mentioned it was something he'd like to do.
Suddenly, the tone of the conversation changed.
"Are you proposing to me?" his partner asked.
"I guess I am!" Wick replied.
Wick, 41, said he and his new spouse, a financial consultant who preferred to remain anonymous for this story, both came to the marriage decision in part because of what Wick called the "civil disobedience" aspect.
"Neither of us is really the activist type. We just want to live our lives ... It's not our nature to be out there on the edge of movements. But we feel like we have the same legal rights and obligations as any other couple, and we would like to be recognized that way."
Wick, a planning and environmental coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management who didn't "come out" until he was 32, said he and his partner were married at their home after getting the license in San Francisco. His friends, and even his straight-laced Pennsylvania family, were wonderfully supportive.
"My brother called me the day of our ceremony and wished us luck -- he's probably my most conservative sibling." And his parents, who hadn't seemed to take the matter seriously when he told them over the phone, later sent a wedding card. "That just really blew my mind," Wick said.
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There is no doubt that the gay marriage "tsunami," as one San Francisco lesbian called it, has electrified the gay and lesbian community and brought a surge of optimism to those fighting for gay rights.
It has also delivered a surprising and very personal sense of joy to those it affects most closely, those for whom the opportunity to marry was like a priceless, unexpected gift.
"We didn't have that much time to emotionally prepare for it, but when we actually had the ceremony, it was so moving," said Emily Sommerman, 34, a McKinleyville psychologist who married her partner, Jennifer Sanford, in San Francisco on March 5. Her mother listened in on a cell phone from Miami.
"Emotionally, in a same-sex couple, you kind of have to steel yourself to not having the things that other couples do. So to finally have the experience where you're allowed to [have the thing you were denied], and the people around you are supporting you and are happy for you ... we were crying. We were just really moved."
Sanford and Sommerman live with their five cats, two dogs and two horses on a spacious McKinleyville homestead. They met three years ago at a professional conference back east, then did some long-distance dating for a while before Sommerman moved here from her home in New Jersey.
They had been planning a commitment ceremony for this summer when Newsom announced that San Francisco would issue marriage licenses to gays. It was an opportunity they both recognized as fleeting. It was also a way to make a statement.
"Any couple who love each other and are two consenting adults should be allowed the same rights as any other couple," said Sanford, 37, also a psychologist. "It's kind of crazy that we're living in a world where you can watch shows like `The Bachelor,' and he gets to choose from 20 different women, and go on three or four dates with the woman that he's going to propose to. People can meet in Las Vegas drunk at a casino and go get married down the street. [Meanwhile] a couple's been together for a year or 20 years who happen to be same-sex -- they can't go and marry."
If the courts nullify Newsom's decision, it will only be the latest chapter in an ongoing story, the women said.
"The struggle to have equal rights would continue," Sommerman said. "But for me, it would feel so sad." She paused. "Not just sad. I think it's different to know that you don't have equal rights. But then to be granted a right and have that taken away from you ... feels devastating. Any other segment of society, if that happens to them, would be outraged."
On the other hand, Sanford added, the courts can't completely erase what happened this spring in San Francisco. "Nobody can take that day away from us," she said. "It's etched in our memories forever."
A matter of pride
TODD LARSEN AND HIS TWO PARTNERS, Michael Weiss and Joel Bollinger, moved to Fieldbrook last June, they were worried.
Wanting to escape from the traffic-filled rat race that Long Beach had become, the gay triad had chosen Humboldt for its saner pace of life, not to mention the coast and the redwoods. What Humboldt didn't seem to have was much in the way of gay activities or a social network.
"We could find no central group, no gay group, nothing organized," said Larsen, 40, director of customer service for WaterMark. "We were really nervous about not finding a gay community."
Gays and lesbians did exist, they soon found out. But the local Web site was out of date, the gay and lesbian center on Fourth Street in Eureka had shut down, and the annual gay pride parade was a modest affair that ended with everyone moving into the bars "because there was nothing to do," Larsen said.
Larsen and Weiss, 37, along with coordinator Margot Gallant [in photo at right] , Jennefer White and other volunteers, are intent on rejuvenating the pride celebration. They've created a new Web site, www.humboldtpride.org, with all the details. They've pulled in bands, DJs, guest speakers -- including gay activist Denis Peron -- and some 40 booths. This year, events will run all weekend, beginning with sales of raffle tickets on Friday, June 11, during Arts Arcata, continuing with a Queer Nature Walk, a Queer Film Festival and a Pride Parents family picnic on Saturday, a Club West dance on Saturday night, and on Sunday, the parade and festival on the plaza from 11 a.m.
[photo at left: Eeyore, Pat and Kati Texas of Queer Coffee House at the Raven Project, prepare backdrop for Pride stage]
One of the goals is to make the festival a "happy celebration," and one that the larger community, including families with children, will want to take part in, Larsen said.
Another is to bring some life back into Humboldt pride.
"I'm hoping this year's festival kind of kick-starts some movement in the community," Weiss said.
-- Emily Gurnon
Glad to be out
by HELEN SANDERSON
WHEN I LEFT HOME FOR HUMBOLDT AT 18 years of age, goodbyes to family and friends were tearful. Certainly, leaving for college is an emotionally trying step for many teenagers. For me, memories of that humid New England summer can still tie my stomach in knots, six years later.
The most emotional of these farewells was with my older sister and baby niece. Holding her blond baby girl on her hip, my sister waved from her doorstep as I got into my car and started the engine. She called to me one last time before I drove off, "Goodbye, honey. We're proud of you."
By the time I got to the end of her street I was sobbing. Those words meant a lot because this was a period in my life when pride was especially difficult to muster. Earlier that year, I came out as gay to a group of friends. The news soon spread, through the school and lastly to my parents and siblings. To say the least, my folks were not thrilled. In fact, things were so tense between us that they decided it would be best if I left for school a month early. But while disclosing my sexual preference was difficult -- made more so by the socially conservative, mostly Catholic, Rhode Island town I grew up in -- it was also liberating. For many queer people, coming out, or telling the people around you that you are gay, is a life-changing event, one often fraught with a complex combination of fear, panic, isolation, apprehension, freedom and in the best-case scenario, pride.
From the perspective of folks who are either homophobic or who object to homosexuality on religious grounds, the term "gay pride" is probably an oxymoron: Gays should be ashamed of their lifestyle, and if they can't change then they should conceal who they are. Shame is a clever form of oppression because it breeds secrecy and fear. It has the ability to demoralize a person or a group into silence and subservience. I know because I've been there, praying nightly to God throughout my sophomore and junior years in high school to not let me be a lesbian. Shame and fear of damnation has been used against queers for so long that our assigned hiding place has its own well-known moniker -- the closet.
Humboldt State celebrates National Coming Out Day in October in part by dragging a door out to the university quad and inviting queer people to walk through it to symbolize their public rite of passage. I remember seeing this event my first semester at HSU. I didn't do it myself but watched as others swung open the door and walked, jumped and sauntered through the doorway to the applause of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Student Alliance (now called the Queer Student Union) and other spectators on the quad. There is a host of other events that cater to gay people in the Arcata-Eureka area, particularly at HSU. These get-togethers and celebrations include weekly meetings for queer young people at HSU, College of the Redwoods, Arcata High School and the Raven Project headquarters; Club Triangle, an "alternative" dance event that happens at Club West every Sunday in Eureka; an annual queer film festival in Arcata; monthly brunches, weekly lunches, a lesbian coffee house, newsletters, e-mail forums; and of course, the annual Humboldt gay pride parade on the Arcata Plaza, which takes place June 13 this year.
When I was coming out in Rhode Island (which is smaller than Humboldt County but has 10 times the population), there was no place outside the state capital of Providence -- 40 miles away -- for gay folks to gather. Besides the gay friends whom I came to know at school, I had no other source of support. This only enhanced my loneliness, and the fear I felt of ridicule. Discrimination is hard to dissolve if an oppressed group has no visible support within the community.
Gay pride parades serve as an opportunity for queer people and their allies to say, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it." I've talked with folks who object to the "in your face" approach that some gay people take toward demonstrating. But it's important to remember that these celebrations are a reaction against years of suffering in silence. (I might add that the annual gay pride event in Humboldt is tame compared to others I've seen.)
While Humboldt is clearly not as accepting of gays as, say, the Bay Area, living here has helped me to understand the importance of being out, and having pride in myself. While it's daunting to be open about an aspect of your life that not everyone agrees with -- for me, not even my own family -- it `s worth it if it helps one person feel better about coming out, or more accepting of those who do. So, to the people -- gay or straight, young or old -- who walk in the parade later this month and who support equal rights and a safe environment for everyone in this community, I'm proud of you.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.