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They Do! 

As state marriage law shifts almost daily, gay weddings resume

When Jean Morgan, who goes by Morgan, came back into her bedroom after a morning cup of coffee last week, her partner of 10 years, Tina, was crying. Tina had been up all night awaiting the Supreme Court's decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8, and Morgan thought the court must have upheld both. Instead, Tina proposed.

Morgan accepted, and the couple married five days later, on Tina's birthday, at the Humboldt County Courthouse in Eureka.

The high court had ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, a tremendous victory for supporters of same-sex marriage nationwide. The court also dismissed the appeal for Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. The proposition, voted into law in 2008, had been declared unconstitutional first by U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker in 2010, and again by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012.

The decision set in motion a swift legal juggernaut. Last Friday, the 9th Circuit Court lifted the stay that has kept same-sex marriages on hold during the appeal. Typically, circuit and district courts hold off until the end of the Supreme Court's 25-day waiting period, during which parties can file to be heard again, but the 9th Circuit moved quickly. By end of business on Friday, gay and lesbian couples in San Francisco were already married, and Morgan and Tina, first on the call-back list at the county clerk's office in Eureka, heard that they could get their license immediately. Proposition 8 backers applied over the weekend to halt same-sex marriages until the waiting period ends, but the high court rejected the motion.

The Supreme Court's dismissal of Proposition 8 goes in the win column for proponents of marriage equality, but it's not a total victory. In all three hearings since 2008, the petitioners, an organization called ProtectMarriage, went to court without state backing because California's governor and attorney general declined to defend the proposition. In the case of Proposition 8, the Supreme Court didn't actually rule on the standing of same-sex couples — it ruled on the standing of the Proposition 8 petitioners, finding that they were not "agents of the state" and had "no personal stake" in the matter of gay and lesbian marriage, as they were not personally injured by Walker's initial ruling striking down the ban.

On June 29, when pro-Proposition 8 lawyers Andrew Pugno, James Campbell and David Nimocks filed their application to stop same-sex marriages until the end of the 25-day waiting period, the specter of another legal blockade was enough to spook Morgan and Tina. They had seen marriage rights rolled back in San Francisco and throughout the state before. The two decided to go ahead and get married at the courthouse as soon as possible and hold a full ceremony and reception with family and friends later.

This was not the first time Tina proposed to her partner. Previously, Morgan was reluctant to marry when it was only legal in some states, but time and illness changed her mind. The women have been domestic partners since 2007, and Morgan said, "I've never been happier with anybody else, so there was never any doubt we were going to be together." Still, she didn't feel right about getting married if the government wasn't going to recognize their union.

On Friday, just two days into their engagement, the couple picked up drinks at Old Town Coffee and Chocolates. Tina, 43, had close-cropped hair and wore a green polo shirt. She quickly grabbed a smoothie from her fiancée's hand, and Morgan launched ahead on silver crutches decorated with colorful Hindu motif stickers. Tina gave a quick smile and explained in a quiet voice that Morgan would take off, drink in hand, and spill the whole thing. "And I'll get so grumpy!" Morgan called over her shoulder. Morgan has problems with disks in her back, as well as having been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. She and Tina owned the Boat House Espresso Bar in King Salmon, but when Morgan's health declined last year, they closed it down so that Tina could care for her. Morgan beamed at Tina. "Nobody does that."

The couple is keenly aware of the practical aspects of a legal marriage. "When you have a relationship like mine, you have to provide for your partner," said Morgan, who is 51. She had prepared as much as she could in terms of insurance and even burial arrangements, having seen others struggle with wills, taxes and contentious relatives after a partner's death. "Not everyone has a functional family," she says.

When Proposition 8 went to the Supreme Court in 2012, the couple worried that the window of opportunity might close if the proposition was upheld. So, witnesses in tow, Morgan and Vest drove to the Humboldt County courthouse to get a marriage license. However, the stay was already in place, and no licenses could be issued.

The recorder's office on the fifth floor of the Humboldt County Courthouse is a bright, airy room with a wall of windows offering a view of the bay and the top of Carson mansion. Just down the hall is the wedding room, where clerks perform civil ceremonies. The room is small, with a high window and an ersatz altar made of old record files. Its small drawers, the size of apartment mailboxes, are stuffed with old, folded marriage records, some brown with age. There is an abstract picture atop the files and a branch of fake white blossoms — you could do worse for a courthouse ceremony.

In 2008, when gay marriage, or "gender neutral" marriage, as County Clerk Recorder Carolyn Crnich prefers, was first legal throughout the state, at least 20 gay and lesbian couples were married here. Crnich, who has been in charge of issuing marriage licenses since 1996, recalls somewhere around 50 licenses being given to same-sex couples, but the office didn't keep count. Record keeping was at her discretion, and state didn't request numbers. "The whole intent of the law was that they were to be treated equally," she said. So why count just one type of marriage?

Elsewhere in the state that year, some county clerks resisted, but not in Humboldt. Clerk Sari Baker recalls Crnich informing the staff that there would be no refusing to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Baker said the clerk's office had no trouble, and she doesn't foresee any resistance this time around either.

Morgan was "beyond excited" about getting married for the first time in her life. Still, her joy was tinged with disappointment that the Supreme Court's ruling on Proposition 8 did not declare the ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. She also wished her parents had survived to see her married. Morgan mentioned a couple she knows who have been married 40 years and she lamented the fact that she won't be able to look back at that long a marriage. "I'm 51," she said, "the government has taken that from me."

Tina knew she was going to propose if the court's decisions went their way, but she was surprised by how emotionally overwhelming the moment was. "It was anticipation and nervousness," she said, "like your whole life is hanging in the balance for somebody to give you a right that should already be yours ... and you don't have a say in it."

On Tuesday afternoon, the couple said their vows in the courthouse wedding room, wearing matching pale pink shirts and white satin ties. Tina wore a breast cancer pin as a tie tack. Morgan wore a white "wedding beanie" and carried a bouquet of pink roses. They loaned one another bracelets for "something borrowed" and wore blue socks. Linda Shapeero, president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and the Journal's own photographer Kim Hodges served as witnesses. A sharply suited Deputy Clerk Ben Hershberger presided, asking each of the women if they would "take this person as [her] spouse." Morgan answered, "I do," and Tina answered, "Absolutely."

Afterward, the couple gave all in attendance tiny beaded rings Morgan made to commemorate the occasion. After marveling at their marriage certificate a moment, Morgan thanked Hershberger and the rest of the staff for being "beyond awesome" and for treating her and her wife like every other couple. Hershberger replied, "Well ... you are."

The Morgans are relieved to be legally wed before anything else happens on the federal or state legal fronts. They hope to have a ceremony to share with loved ones in six months or so. Tina has been married once before: a quick ceremony for a marriage that ended. This will be her first "real" wedding reception. She's planning on wearing white, and would like a fairly traditional ceremony, since, she said, "I'm kind of an old-fashioned girl."

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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