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Last night after several hours of debate, the Maryland House of Delegates voted in favor of the Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would legalize same-sex marriages in the state, though religious institutions would not be required to perform them. The measure now goes to the Senate, where its passage is said to be guaranteed, as that chamber passed same-sex marriage legislation last year.
Amidst all this politicking, one couple in Odenton, Md. - just 17 miles from the Statehouse in Annapolis - has been watching the debate with mixed emotions.
Jen and Michelle have been together 13.5 years, and are among the 12,000 same-sex couples the 2010 census reports reside in Maryland. They're among the 2,500 raising children. Their child, 2-year-old Gavin, calls Jen "Mama," and Michelle "Mommy."
"We were just going to let him call us whatever he called us," Michelle says. "But it was at the point where we were referring to each other, and talking to him, and not knowing what to call each other. And we just kind of made a decision that we should distinguish ourselves, gives ourselves names."
"He picked up really quickly on it, too," adds Jen. "And he's been verbalizing it probably since a year."
Making things official
The week before state lawmakers voted, Jen and Michelle were optimistic about Maryland green-lighting same-sex marriage this year. But the truth is, they're already married. As Jen explains, they tied the knot in the District in 2010, when D.C., legalized same-sex marriage.
"At the time, the Attorney General for Maryland had just come out with an opinion that they were going to do kind of everything that they could to recognize same-sex marriages," she says. "And so we felt like it was really important for us, and for him, to have whatever protection that legal marriage could offer."
But when Michelle gave birth to Gavin in February 2010 - after several rounds of in vitro fertilization - she and Jen weren't yet married. So, as Jen vividly recalls, they encountered a bit of a glitch.
"We had just had this huge high of having this baby, and we were so excited," she says. "And then two hours afterwards I'm filling out the paperwork to get a birth certificate and to register his birth, and I wasn't able to put my name on the birth certificate."
That, she says, was nothing short of heartbreaking.
"But then, three months later I was able to officially adopt him, and now my name is on his birth certificate."
And when Michelle gives birth to a second child this May, Jen's name will be on all the paperwork from the get-go.
"Even though we'll still go through the second-parent adoption," she adds. "So that if we did move out of state, or to a state where it doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, then we'll still have the legal protection of adoption."
Not that Jen and Michelle plan on moving any time soon. They grew up in Maryland, and met at college in Salisbury. And though they headed to Boston for graduate school, once they got their master's degrees they moved back to Maryland "because we knew we wanted to start a family, and we wanted to be close. Both our families are in Maryland, and this is where we've been since," Jen says.
Making a commitment
Both of their families were at an event Michelle says she and Jen will remember forever: their 2005 Commitment Ceremony on the Eastern Shore.
"I mean, we had already been together for seven years, and we couldn't get legally married," Michelle says. "And so I think even though they loved and supported us, they weren't quite sure why we were doing it or if it was going to change anything but everyone agreed something did feel like it changed. It was very validating."
In fact, as Jen points out, in some ways the commitment ceremony was even more momentous than the actual marriage.
"[The commitment ceremony] is the anniversary that we celebrate, and the signing of the piece of paper making it legal was just the icing on the cake," she says. "But it didn't really affect how we felt, and I don't think at this point it really will affect how my family feels and her family feels about us."
But Jen does say she and Michelle will be first in line to get married again - that's assuming, of course, the state Senate approves the Civil Marriage Protection Act. Though as Michelle points out, same-sex married couples are still denied many rights, involving everything from Social Security to federal taxes to immigration.
"Being in a same-sex relationship, a lot of our day-to-day life just feels common, just like all of our other friends and neighbors and people that we know," she says. "But in reality, there are some things that are very different for us, and it can be challenging."
But what's kept them together all these years, both Michelle and Jen agree, is what keeps any couple together: respect, communication, "and just understanding what it means to be there for another person," Michelle says.
"Because you're going to love the person," Jen adds with a laugh, "but you're not always going to like the person! But if you have that respect, that is what will keep you together through very stressful times."
Jen and Michelle know stressful times may come, whether or not Maryland legalizes same-sex marriage. But they say getting the stamp of approval from their home state would help them breathe a little easier. Not just for themselves, but for Gavin. And, when the baby comes this spring, for the newest member of this growing Maryland family.
This story was updated to reflect the Maryland House of Delegate’s passage of the same-sex marriage bill Friday evening.
[Music: "Everybody Loves Somebody" by Dinah Washington from Unforgettable]