US: Gay/Lesbian Couples Flock to Washington DC for Weddings

22 Mar 2010

Attorney general's opinion that out-of-state nuptials should be recognized here has inspired couples to make the leap

By Scott Calvert

Dupont Circle on a recent sunny afternoon: Workers on lunch break gather for impromptu picnics; others relax on park benches, drawn by the springlike warmth. And under one budding tree, barely noticed by a passing stream of pedestrians, Baltimore residents Jessica Leshnoff and Holly Beatty prepare to wed.

We gather today to marry Jessica and Holly. This is your time; this is your day. Today you once again declare your love and commitment to each other: this time sanctioned not only by your love, your vows and your solemn commitment, but by the law.

With these words officiant Todd Waymon of the Washington Ethical Society begins a simple ceremony that will grant the women the legal recognition they've yearned for during nine years together. Looking on are five friends and Leshnoff's 88-year-old great-uncle Ben, who's come from Florida.

Gay couples from Maryland have been flocking to Washington this month since it began sanctioning same-sex marriages, joining five states. Staff at D.C. Superior Court have been too busy to sort applications by state, but a spokeswoman said it appeared that at least 25 percent of the 151 license-seekers the first day were from Maryland.

Proximity is not the only factor. A key impetus for Leshnoff, Beatty and others was last month's opinion by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler holding that Maryland should recognize same-sex nuptials performed out-of-state. That meant a marriage in Washington would remain valid after a couple returned home.

In the emotional crucible of marriage politics, some lawmakers in Annapolis have been trying to blunt the force of the opinion, which directly impacts only state agencies but has been hailed by gay-rights advocates as a major step toward equality.

A sense that the issue is far from settled - reinforced by the rejection of gay marriage by voters in Maine and California - was another reason Leshnoff and Beatty wasted no time making their union legal.

"You never know," Leshnoff said, "when it's going to be taken away."

Over the course of time, you two have come to know, respect and love each other. Only the two of you can make your marriage a living reality. It will be you who begin each day with a choice: to be silent or to express caring, to be busy or to reveal love, to turn away or to acknowledge respect, to nurture bitterness or to create joy with each other. And through these daily choices you will renew the vows you make today.

Are you ready to make your commitments?

"Yes," Beatty said.

"Yes," Leshnoff said.

Actually, this was not the first time they made their commitments. In 2008, they held a big Jewish wedding before 150 family members and friends. They went all out, with a catered meal, a DJ and "best people" instead of groomsmen and bridesmaids. Leshnoff wore a white dress.

Their relationship began in the spring of 2001 when they met, through friends, during a night out in Washington. A week later Leshnoff e-mailed Beatty, and soon the pair went on their first date.

Things got more and more serious and, in 2006, they bought a Highlandtown rowhouse that they have completely rehabbed.

But their life together has hardly been a fairy tale. The recession has hurt them, as it has many families. Beatty, 35, was laid off in 2008 as an assistant project manager for a construction company. A year later, Leshnoff lost her job in marketing at Maryland Public Television.

Beatty is now a full-time student at the University of Baltimore, pursuing a degree in government, public policy and community studies. Leshnoff, 31, is a freelance journalist and copywriter.

The inability to marry legally has been a constant source of pain and irritation, the couple says. They resented the unequal treatment, even though Maryland has granted domestic partners limited legal protections, such as the right to hospital visits, exemption from inheritance tax on jointly owned homes and the ability to make health care and burial decisions.

In fact, Leshnoff said she had recently suggested moving somewhere such as Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal and they might feel more "respected."

Then Gansler issued his opinion. "Totally changed everything," Leshnoff said. Now they would wed in D.C., knowing they'd still be considered married when they drove back up Interstate 95. Beatty insisted on St. Patrick's Day.

Their 2008 ceremony was "for everyone else," Leshnoff said, but "this time we're doing this for us, and it counts and it's legal."

Some lawmakers don't want it to count in Maryland. Out-of-state gay unions would not be recognized under a bill filed by Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who says Gansler's opinion is at odds with state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

"I don't blame them for going to D.C. and getting married in light of what the attorney general has said," Stone said. "I disagree with his opinion."

While a similar bill died in the House of Delegates, Stone thinks his has the votes to pass the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. In any case, Gansler predicts his opinion will be challenged in court.

Since the opinion does not apply to local government or the private sector, Leshnoff and Beatty aren't sure how being married will affect their lives in Maryland. "As far as the benefits that it's going to help us get, we still don't know," Beatty said.

As it turns out, Beatty and Leshnoff were not the only gay Maryland couple to marry Wednesday in Washington. It was also wedding day for Columbia retirees Joe Carmel and Steve Pakes, No. 98 in line when Washington began issuing licenses March 3.

"We've been together over 26 years and in our friends' eyes and our eyes we're already married," Pakes said. "This makes it legal and official and tells the world, 'Yes, we love each other.' "

After Gansler's opinion, they nixed plans to purchase wedding rings in Washington as a financial protest, buying them instead at the Columbia Mall.

In a month or so, Lisa Polyak of Baltimore plans to marry her partner of 28 years, Gita Deane. But Polyak, an engineer, said she's upset about the uncertainty over which rights they'll enjoy in Maryland.

"I wonder when people are going to get past what is holding them back from saying we deserve simple equality," Polyak said.

Back at sunny Dupont Circle, Leshnoff and Beatty promised to console each other in sorrow, to strengthen each other in weakness, to share and create happiness. Dressed comfortably in blue jeans, they promised to love, protect and cherish each other as long as they both shall live.

They slid wedding bands onto each other's ring finger and recited: "With all that I have, and all that I am, I marry you and join my life to yours."

Having declared yourselves to each other, and by the powers vested in me by ... the Government of the District of Columbia, I now pronounce you married.

Leshnoff and Beatty kissed and embraced. Their friends clapped. Great-uncle Ben Leibowitz beamed from his wheelchair. "I waited such a long time for this," he said. "I got myself a new niece."

The couple took photos on the very bench where they ended up after that date in 2001.

They celebrated at an Irish pub. When the drinks came, it was time for a toast.

"To many, many years of happiness, health and everything else you could ever want," said friend Justin Harris, who doubled as wedding photographer.

"I'm very proud of you for doing it first, before it was recognized, and now being the first I know to do it once it was recognized. I love you guys and look forward to many years with you."

To which Leshnoff added: "Here's to nine years and a hundred more."

Article taken from the Baltimore Sun.