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Virginia’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was struck down late Thursday night by U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen. Her decision does not go into effect until appeals courts have weighed in, but Wright Allen compared the ruling to the historic 1967 case that legalized interracial marriage.
“We have arrived upon another moment in history when ‘We the people’ becomes more inclusive, and our freedom more perfect,” wrote Judge Wright Allen. She concluded that Virginia's marriage ban violated the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Carol Schall and Mary Townley are one of the two couples who sued the commonwealth for the right to marry. Schall and Townley were married in San Francisco in 2008, but Virginia refused to recognize their relationship. Now, their case could be appealed as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.
Schall and Townley say Virginians are ready to accept families like theirs.
“Looking at the people just that we know in Chesterfield County, Va., I’ve barely met anybody that didn’t support us as a family,” says Townley. “And we’re living in a neighborhood that would be characterized as very Republican, very red,” says Schall.
Recent polls have found just over half of Virginians now support same-sex marriage. In 2006, 57 percent of voters supported the constitutional ban currently in place.
Attitudes have changed a lot, over the decades that Schall and Townley have been together. They met 30 years ago, working at a school in rural Winchester, Virginia.
“We felt very, very at-risk,” says Schall. “We felt that we had to keep this secret, for fear of losing our jobs, for fear of retribution from friends. So we just maintained this façade of, ‘Oh, we’re just friends.’”
“I vividly remember, we went out of town with another couple, we felt a little more free, because we were not in our hometown, so we were able to be ourselves a little more,” recalls Townley. “But as soon as we got back in to Winchester, our friends who were very, very worried about being identified as being a couple – we were sitting in a van, they said, ‘Spread yourselves apart, don’t hold hands, don’t do anything, we’re back.’ They were so afraid of being identified.”
Townley and Schall say when they first started dating they never even considered marriage as a possibility. But by the mid-1990s, they started thinking about having a child, and felt marriage was an important part of raising a child.
“I feel as a parent, that having marriage in your relationship solidifies that relationship a step further,” says Townley.
At that time, there was no state in the nation were they could legally be wed, so they held a private commitment ceremony in 1996. When same-sex marriage became legal in California for a few months in 2008, Townley, Schall, and their daughter Emily flew to San Francisco for a wedding in city hall.
“I’ve always thought of them as my parents,” says Emily. “Probably not until like fifth grade, when I saw them get married, I realized that they technically weren’t married in the first place.”
Schall and Townley say there are many practical ways their lives are made more difficult by the commonwealth’s refusal to recognize their marriage: higher insurance payments and taxes, extra paperwork to allow Schall, who is not biologically related to Emily, to pick her up at school. There is also the issue of medical care.
“When Mary was pregnant with Emily, she had a health crisis,” says Schall. “She woke up one morning and she said, ‘My stomach doesn’t feel very good.’ And within minutes, she was doubled over in pain, couldn’t talk. I rushed her in to the emergency room. I parked in the emergency room bay. They met us there with a wheel chair, wheeled her back. I had her purse, I checked her in. Then they said, ‘Now you have to go move the car.’ Of course, I’ll move the car. So I ran out to the car. I’m terrified, I’m scared. I run back in, and I say, ‘Okay, how is she?’ And they said, ‘What’s your relationship to her?' And I said, 'I’m her partner.' And they said, 'We can’t tell you.'
At that moment it became so clear that I was living in a world where they don’t recognize me as even important to her, they weren’t going to share any information with me. I’ll never forget that moment of feeling so powerless. Right now, legally — of course, this is my family, Mary and Emily — but legally I’m a stranger to them.
“We think back to the 80s, and how we were so afraid. We look at us now, thirty years later, and here we are in court, and they’re defending our lives. Wow, that’s just incredible.”
“I would add that the other side of that, listening to the defendants talk about us was a little bit difficult, for all of us,” says Schall. “It was difficult to listen to folks making an argument that we’re bad for Emily.”
In court the defendants’ lawyers argued, in support of Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban, that children benefit from having the active involvement of a mother and father.
Emily was in the courtroom too (she got an excused absence from school to attend). “It definitely was frustrating hearing the other side talk,” she says. “You just wanted to get up there and tell them what you thought, but obviously you couldn’t.”
Townley says she is unfazed by the arguments from the other side. “We’ve heard if for so long. Even when we’re just leaving the courthouse, and the protestors are out there, with their signs, and how wrong we are. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I know. We’re wrong. Whatever.’ Because, I know I’m not wrong. I know I’m a good person, I’m a worthy person, I’m in love with someone who maybe you don’t think I should love, but you know what, you’re not running my life.”
Townley, Schall, and the other plaintiffs in the case, Bostic v. Rainey, gained a big boost last month, when Virginia’s new attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, announced his office would no longer defend Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage. Herring appeared in court in support of the same-sex plaintiffs.
Music: "Uninhibited" by The Vitamin String Quartet from Uninhibited: The String Quartet Tribute to Hinder"