“I still get a huge grin on my face when I think about that day,” Jessy Milicevic tells me, reflecting back on the first full day when same-gender couples could legally wed in Charlotte.
“It was the spirit in the air,” she continues. “These people had waited for so long just to be validated. They didn’t want anything special or any sort of special treatment — just to be validated and appreciated in North Carolina as a legal couple.”
Milicevic’s recollections don’t stray too far from others. Couples, activists, even myself, we all look back with amazement on a week of anticipation and a final, glorious day of celebration.
Six months ago, I had also been sitting and waiting. Waiting for five long days on the slow-as-molasses court system to order what everyone knew would be the final outcome. On Oct. 6, the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to take up appeals on marriage cases from the Fourth Circuit and several others, launching a dizzying week of hurry-up-and-wait expectation. Any day, any time, district courts in North Carolina, or, perhaps, a rogue register of deeds, could swing open the doors to legally recognized marriages for LGBT couples.
I had sat at the Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds office nearly all day, nearly every day that week, reporting from the scene and spending time with couples and community members. Finally, on Friday, Oct. 10, minutes after the register of deeds office closed, a district court judge in Western North Carolina handed down the order upholding the Fourth Circuit’s earlier, favorable ruling on marriage.
Dozens of couples in Greensboro, Raleigh and Asheville wed that night. When Monday, Oct. 13 rolled around, dozens of Charlotte couples began lining up as the sun began to rise, immediately filing into the Mecklenburg Register of Deeds office to claim legal marriage licenses as soon as the doors opened at 8 a.m.
Resource: Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds
641 – estimated number of same-gender marriages, Oct. 13-March 1
27.3% – percentage of all marriages that were same-gender couples
63% – percentage of same-gender marriages between female couples
37% – percentage of same-gender marriages between male couples
Milicevic, who’d waited the anxious days with others, was present that Monday, too, officiating small and intimate courtyard weddings for many of those who chose to tie the knot right then and there.
In total, more than 60 same-gender couples claimed their marriage licenses that day. Thomas Reed-Hall and Jerry Reed-Hall were among them — shocked the day they could legally wed in their home state had come so soon.
“There was no way I thought it would have happened as quickly as it did,” Jerry says. “It was one of those things, you just looked up and it happened and within a week it could be legal. I remember being skeptical and thinking this was not going to happen and we’d be the last ones to approve it just because of the traditional conservative values in the Southeast.”
Jerry’s fears were eventually allayed, and the opening of legal marriage here at home made the couple’s prior plans unnecessary. They’d already booked a Thanksgiving trip to New York City. There, they were slated to be married.
“We wanted to be able to put the kids on Jerry’s insurance, because he has such a great plan,” says Thomas. The couple couldn’t wait any longer.
But the legal decision in North Carolina made dreams of a hometown wedding possible — allowing their families to join in.
“His parents couldn’t go with us to New York,” Thomas says. “Even with a later formal wedding, they really wanted to watch the real thing go down. It was amazing that all of a sudden they actually did get to watch us get married. It worked out great and it was perfect.”
Thomas and Jerry took their license that day and planned a legal ceremony for Oct. 24. This year, one year to the day, they’ll hold a formal wedding ceremony, just two days shy of the anniversary celebrating when they first met.
The couple’s experience — the need to marry sooner rather than later out of concerns for family needs — has long been a concern for LGBT families. Now, the couple’s children are fully protected. They’re even planning on making Jerry their legal stepfather.
“It opens a lot of doors,” Thomas says — doors that used to be shut to LGBT-led families.
Wading into new waters
Local attorney Connie Vetter has long worked with LGBT couples and families. Before marriage, it took a bevy of legal forms and considerations to piecemeal many of the protections that come automatically with a marriage certificate.
And, in that respect, the extension of marriage to same-gender couples has been a good thing, offering families legal recognition as next of kin. It makes financial decisions, healthcare considerations and other matters simpler.
But the last six months have also proven that marriage is more than a fast track to benefits. It comes with legal responsibilities, too.
“Although many of us see marriage as being about love and affection and family, marriage is actually a legal contract,” says Vetter, calling it a “double-edged sword.” A lot of good comes with a marriage certificate, like that automatic next-of-kin status.
But, Vetter adds quickly, “depending on your point view, there are less good things like giving upward to half your property in a break up or a divorce. These are things people haven’t fully thought about.”
Vetter has spent the last six months counseling couples on the meaning of marriage and all the considerations they now have to take into account. Some concerns are minor and routine — like still ensuring strong wills, updating property ownership records and healthcare power of attorney forms, all still essential in assisting even a married couple’s wishes are respected.
Others concerns are significant and sometimes carry unintended consequences. Vetter points to the lack of employment protections in North Carolina.
“There are people losing their jobs because they got married and they either told their employer about it or their employer found out about it,” she says.
And with marriage equality, there also comes divorce equality. Vetter’s already seen it — primarily from those long-married couples who sought out legal weddings in other states.
“These people were literally wedlocked. They couldn’t get a divorce,” she says, adding that she’s seen no couple married at home in the last six months yet seeking out a divorce.
The opening of marriage in North Carolina means many couples are wading into new waters. Vetter’s seen older couples who never dreamed of marriage now suddenly asking questions and considering its benefits.
“For people who grew up never thinking it was possible, it’s a bit of a learning curve,” she says.
Vetter herself had to ask for some real-life experience from her sister in law and other married friends. After marriage, who should own the family’s cars, Vetter questioned. It seemed simple, but it was just a new environment.
“For 20-odd years I had been telling unmarried couples it was a bad idea legally to own cars together,” Vetter says. “Married, different-sex couples own cars together all the time.
Charting a solid course
Vetter isn’t alone in charting a new course after marriage equality. The new legal environment has given rise to a phenomenal array of options for same-gender couples. Navigating a new course that needs to be solid and secure can bring up topics one might have never considered before.
That’s why Vetter has assisted with Milicevic’s new community non-profit, Charlotte Family Resource, founded by Milicevic, Charlotte Business Guild President Chad Sevearance and financial advisor Will Hashemi.
The goal is simple — provide a roadmap for couples’ new journeys together.
“I’m a mother of three,” says Milicevic. “There are so many resources when you get married as a straight couple. There is a precedent. You know what to do at work or when you have a child you know the doctors to go to. There’s a wealth of knowledge for a straight couple. But for an LGBT couple there’s not.”
From protecting legal rights and navigating workplace human resources policies and insurance to adoption, surrogacy and family planning, Milicevic says, “People are trying to figure things out on their own.”
Milicevic says Charlotte Family Resources exists to fill that gap. The group has offered several workshops already, featuring expert presenters with a proven track record of supporting the LGBT community. Milicevic was insistent that those brought on to help weren’t just in it for selfish reasons.
Charlotte Family Resource seminars
Charlotte Family Resource will be providing a series of seminars over the next several months, each designed to tackle a specific issue or concern for LGBT families.
The dates and topics are below. Visit charlottefamilyresource.org for more information and to register as each event nears.
May 7 – White Picket Fence: Purchasing a Home and Obtaining Loans, with Traci Mayo.
June 4 – Because Two People Fell in Love: Adoption and Your Options, with Helene Nathanson
July 9 – Because Two People Fell in Love: Surrogacy and Your Options, with Amy Wallas Fox
Aug. 6 – Because Two People Fell in love: Reproduction Options
Sept. 3 – Nickels and Dimes: Planning for Your Financial Future, with Will Hashemi
Oct. 1 – Till Death Do Us Part: Healthcare Rights, Wills, Estates and Legal Documents, with Connie Vetter and Tatiana Moreland
“We spent weeks and weeks vetting people,” she says. “Will and I wanted to make sure the people we brought on to give a seminar are people who have a genuine interest and passion in helping the community.”
Future workshop seminars — offered for free — will cover home buying, family planning and a slew of other topics.
All of them will be helpful for the more than 640 same-gender couples that Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds J. David Granberry estimates have wed in Charlotte since October, nearly 30 percent of all the marriages since then.
A positive outlook
Advocates and community members are confident that an impending U.S. Supreme Court decision will be the final, positive end in a long trip toward legal marriage equality.
“I’m hopeful,” says Vetter. “I am absolutely hopeful.”
Thomas and Jerry Reed-Hall, too, say they have no reason to doubt the court will make the right decision.
Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a national marriage equality case. A decision could be handed down by June.
“It’s like a domino effect, especially the last six months of 2014,” recounts Milicevic. “Every other week, a state was legalizing marriage. It was just one after another after another.”
The issue really is a non-issue, Milicevic says. The court won’t have any other option than to move forward.
“LGBT marriage is the same thing as straight marriage,” she says. : :
— Take a look back on our past marriage equality special coverage archives at goqnotes-launch2.newspackstaging.com/to/marriagenc/.