Why I Had to Leave the State to Get Married

In Cover Stories, News by April Snellingsleave a COMMENT

It was a cold, gray day in March when my partner and I walked down the steps of a 19th-century Brooklyn townhouse and made our way to the Lafayette Avenue subway station. It was a Friday morning and, though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the aluminum-colored snow clouds that had piled up overnight, the first day of spring. Knoxville was looking forward to a comparatively balmy day that would top out around 54 degrees; New York City, on the other hand, was preparing for yet another snowstorm, and temperatures didn’t make it out of the 30s that day.

Under the circumstances, Jami and I were glad we’d opted for warm jeans, boots, and scarves instead of wedding dresses.

It was a decision that inspired varying degrees of mortification and horror in our friends and family, but it made our trek to New York City Hall’s Marriage Bureau on March 20, 2015 an altogether more pleasant journey. We could’ve taken a taxi, I guess, but I refuse to use cabs on the grounds that I’m cheap and they’re not. So after a brisk walk past the Fort Greene brownstones and bodegas that had become familiar to us over the course of the preceding week, we caught a C train that took us into Manhattan.

It’s not a typical route for a Tennessee couple to take on their wedding day, but Jami and I aren’t a typical Tennessee couple. It’s not really the fact that we’re gay that sets us apart—I honestly don’t remember the last time anyone bothered to crook an eyebrow at that. We divide our time between Knoxville and Oak Ridge, and both of those communities, at least in our experience, are wonderfully accepting places.

Rather, we’re outliers because of the strangely protean geography of our marriage. Most of our married friends are married no matter where they are; when we travel, it takes satellites and cell towers to figure out whether or not we’re hitched (or at least a map and an accurate memory of recent court cases). It’s complicated.

But it wasn’t so complicated on March 19, when we sat in cracked plastic chairs at the Brooklyn Municipal Building and applied for a marriage license. I’d like to say that we’d driven the 730 miles to New York City for the sole purpose of getting married, but that’s not the case. We were in town on business—I’d sold a play—and the wedding was really more of an afterthought. We opted to do the deed at City Hall, partly because it’s fast and inexpensive—it set us back $35 for the license, and an additional $25 for the ceremony—but mostly because, since our families and friends couldn’t be there to share it with us, the circumstances didn’t seem to matter much. We’d been together for nine years by then, and we just wanted to get married. We had decided to tie the knot about a year into our relationship, on Christmas Eve; eight years is a very long engagement.

We even considered returning to the Brooklyn Municipal Building for the ceremony. New York requires a waiting period of at least 24 hours once you’ve secured your marriage license, and we were staying with friends in Brooklyn, so it would have been easier. But it was one of those somber, dingy places where you feel compelled to whisper even when no one else is around, so we hedged our bets and headed to Manhattan.

I’d also like to say that I remember my wedding day with remarkable clarity and then regale you with specific, writerly details, but that’s not true either. From the moment we walked through the giant, Art Deco doors at 141 Worth St., everything moved so quickly that the hour or so we spent inside exists as more of a catalog of impressions than a distinct memory.

I recall marble columns and bronze chandeliers, and that it was loud and warm and happy and crowded. There were grooms in top hats and brides in T-shirts. There were couples who had no family with them and asked other brides and grooms to serve as their witnesses, and there were couples who’d apparently brought everyone they’d ever met. There were teenage couples, and couples who were accompanied by their grandchildren. There was singing and dancing and cheering and at least one opera cape.

It was hectic and intense, and everyone was happy—even the famously crabby city officials. A cop who was sent over to shush a particularly loud wedding party ended up singing and dancing with them.

What stands out most of all to me about that day, though, is that we didn’t stand out at all. This thing we were doing, which was causing so much consternation in our home state that Tennessee amended its constitution to stop it, was no big deal in New York.

We took our marriage license to the counter, just like everybody else. We were given a number, just like everybody else, and sent to a line of avocado-green sofas to wait until our number appeared on the overhead monitors. There was a minor timing-related kerfuffle because we showed up at the window seven minutes before our 24-hour waiting period was up and we got bumped back in the queue; a pair of sympathetic clerks conspired to hold our spot for us, though, so as soon as those seven minutes passed, we were hustled back into the fray.

IMG_1986It was stunningly efficient. Forty-two minutes after we’d submitted our license and taken our number, Jami and I, with two witnesses in tow, were directed into the West Chapel to say our vows. The ceremony was simple and informal. Our officiant, an apple-cheeked, brilliantly-coiffed woman named Edwina Townes, mixed up our names a couple of times—maybe that’s one of those unforeseen dangers of same-sex marriage that people keep warning us about—and I panicked and said something dumb when she asked each of us to tell the other why we wanted to marry her. (As the long-suffering editors of this paper can tell you, I need time to think of interesting stuff to say.) I don’t remember what I said, but after a moment of watching me twist in the wind, Ms. Townes let me off the hook. I don’t remember what Jami said either, but I’m sure it was nice.

And that was it. Ms. Townes pronounced us married, signed our marriage certificate, and sent us on our way. After nine years of being told how terribly different we are by the state of Tennessee, it took the state of New York 24 hours and 42 minutes to acknowledge that, in the ways that count, we’re just like everybody else. 

***

Getting married is supposed to be a life-changing event, and it probably was for the scores of other couples who tied the knot at New York City Hall that day. But for Jami and me, it really didn’t change very much. As we drove home the following Monday, our marriage did a strange magic act. We traveled through several states over the course of the 13-hour trip to Tennessee, and we were married in all of them: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, even Virginia.

Then we got to Tennessee, and we weren’t married anymore—at least, not as far as our home state is concerned. Nine years ago, in 2006—the year I met my wife, incidentally—Tennessee passed an amendment to its state constitution that explicitly denies same-sex couples the right to wed, and prohibits the state from recognizing those marriages when they’re performed in other states.

The language of the amendment is terse and unpleasant—something about marriage being a historical institution—but you really don’t have to look beyond the name of the referendum to get the gist of it: the Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment. The argument, I think, is that same-sex marriage is somehow an affront to different-sex marriage, and that terrible things will happen if gay people are allowed to go around marrying each other all willy-nilly, as if they’re celebrities or straight people.

It’s starting to look like Tennesseans were all worked up over nothing. Opponents of marriage equality have been pretty vague about exactly how long it will take for gays to ruin marriage for everybody else, so maybe social collapse and divine retribution are still imminent. I’ve got to be honest, though: So far, Jami and I have experienced a marked lack of smiting. Everyone’s just been really happy for us. Jami’s school-system coworkers showered us with gift cards and congratulations; her conservative, devoutly religious parents helped us celebrate our wedding, and treat me as their daughter-in-law. A neighbor gave us some cookies that I suspect were store-bought and not homemade, but that’s been the extent of the shunning so far.

Like so many gay couples who live in the handful of states still successfully fighting marriage equality, Jami and I are in an uncertain place right now. The culture of acceptance that’s slowly been taking root in Tennessee over the past few years is at odds with the state’s political climate, and that has made things difficult for us at times. Everyone we know—friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, liberals and conservatives alike—treats us as a married couple. In our daily lives, we feel loved and accepted. Knoxville has been a wonderful, welcoming, supportive city for us.

Tennessee is more problematic. Our governor has repeatedly declared his opposition to marriage equality. Our state asked its citizens to vote on whether or not our marriage should be valid, and 81 percent of our fellow Tennesseans decided that it shouldn’t. The same people who carry on about personal freedom were very eager to clarify that they don’t mean personal freedom for, like, everybody.

***

In short, being gay in Knoxville is easy, but being gay in Tennessee is a huge pain in the ass.

Years ago, we talked about moving to a place that would offer us the same rights and protections as everyone else. We thought about California or New York. We talked about Vermont. We even seriously considered ditching the U.S. altogether and heading to Canada.

But we have lives here—the ones we had before we met, and the one we’ve built together. We have friends and families and careers and pets—lots of pets—and a house and a garden, and the thought of leaving home makes us terribly sad. As strange as it feels to say it, we love living in Tennessee. We’re happy here, and we want to stay.

And we’re lucky because, at least for now, we can do that without worrying about what it might mean for us. Jami and I both come from loving, accepting families, so we don’t have to struggle with the things that so many gay couples have to deal with—hospital visitation rights, for instance, should one of us ever get hurt or become ill. Neither of our families would even think of trying to keep us apart, especially when we need one another the most. Other couples in Tennessee aren’t that fortunate. They desperately need the protections, rights, and reassurances that marriage offers.

We’re thinking about having kids, though, and if that happens, we might have to reevaluate our situation. Opponents of marriage equality often tell us to “think of the children,” and that’s what we’ll have to do. On one hand, we want to raise our hypothetical kids around our family; we want them to have close relationships with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Jami and I both had that advantage, and we’d like our children to have it, too. We’re funny like that. Jami will probably even take our kids to church when I’m not looking.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine how hard it might be to grow up in a place where your family doesn’t have the same rights as other families, or where it isn’t even recognized as a family. Too many people have endured that experience throughout our country’s history, and maybe we’re obligated to do whatever we can to keep anyone else from going through it. Jami always sees the good in people, and doesn’t think it would be a challenge to raise children here. I’m not so sure. I don’t know what the answer is. 

Maybe it’s not something we’ll ever have to figure out. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will rule in favor of marriage equality later this month, and we won’t have to choose between the home we love and the rights we need and deserve. I wish it weren’t up to a federal court to force Tennessee to recognize our marriage and thousands like it, and to give all of our neighbors the right to have the experience we had. But it is, and I hope they make the right decision.

The next time someone asks me if I’m married, it would be wonderful to be able to say “yes” no matter which side of the Tennessee state line I happen to be standing on. 

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April Snellings

April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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