When Andrew LaRochelle and Steven Bowe exchange their marriage vows in downtown Fort Lauderdale this Saturday, they will join the burgeoning ranks of more than half a million same-sex couples legally married in the United States.
There has been a rush to the altar by LGBT Americans in the 18 months since June 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guaranteed same-sex couples the legal right to marriage – or, as Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” Research reported by the Williams Institute estimates 123,000 LGBT marriages in just the first 12 months after the ruling, with wedding spending generating $1.58 billion for local and state economies.
But not all of America is celebrating the victory of marriage equality. The opposition has been strong with the likes of Kim Davis, the defiant Rowan County, Kentucky clerk who famously chose to go to jail rather than comply with a federal court order to grant same-sex marriage licenses.
Today, incidents of discrimination by those planning a same-sex wedding are rampant. One in four (25%) of engaged or recently married couples “know for sure or suspect they were rejected” by wedding vendors. That is just one of the alarming findings of new research revealed last month by Bernadette Smith, president of the Equality Institute. Addressing the 17th Annual Community Marketing LGBT Tourism Conference in Las Vegas, Smith presented the findings of the 2016 Survey of Contemporary Couples and Wedding Trends which also revealed that 52% of engaged and recently married same-sex couples are afraid of being rejected by wedding vendors.
But fears of discrimination or not, LGBT couples are running down the aisle – and the reason has to do with more than just love.
“The impact of marriage equality has been huge and inconsequential at the same time,” believes Lee Rubin, Fort Lauderdale LGBT community leader, philanthropist, and a marriage officiant who unites gay couples in his capacity as a minister of the Universal Life Church, an online ministry that ordains wedding officiants. “I say inconsequential because none of the doomsday apocalyptic predictions or marriage equality opponents have come true.”
What marriage equality has also done, believes Mr. Rubin, is added legitimacy to same-sex unions. “Personally, since marrying, I have experienced an immediate recognition by straight people of my relationship when I reference my husband – which never happened in the previous 18 years when he was just my ‘domestic partner.’ Rubin is married to Jim Walker, a member of the Board of the Pride Center located in Wilton Manors.
Matthew N. Rosen, a psychotherapist and professional counsellor whose practice over nearly two decades includes the LGBT community and who is, himself, in a same-sex relationship, sees marriage as a critical psychological validation for LGBT couples.
“Marriage is a validation, a commitment of love, and a testament that two individuals will remain committed and entrusted to one another throughout their lives together,” says Rosen, who is the clinical director of a national treatment center in the Greater Philadelphia area but also maintains a private practice in Fort Lauderdale. “Prior to gay marriage legalization, many individuals and couples in the LGBT community felt oppressed or negated of their right to the legal aspects that marriage provides, as well as domestic partnership validation, and the officially of the lifelong commitment and joy that marriage allows for.”
The psychotherapist likens the experience to a time “when African-Americans and women were not able to vote.” America’s LGBT community estimated at 14 million people “felt stifled and muffled in their quest to enjoy an accepted life together while receiving the legal domestic benefits that a traditional male-female marriage attests to and allows for,” explains Rosen.
And there are important legal benefits. “Marriage has meaning and permanence that no other relationship status confers, the most important being the legal rights that automatically comes with marriage,” explains Mr. Rubin. “These include tax benefits from filing joint income tax returns, estate planning benefits, including inheriting your spouse’s assets without tax consequences. There are automatic federal benefits, like Social Security, Medicare, disability and veterans’ and military benefits for spouses. There are automatic employment benefits, such as insurance benefits through a spouse’s employer, family medical leave, receiving wages, workers’ compensation, and retirement plan benefits for a deceased spouse – even the ability to take bereavement leave if your spouse or one of your spouse’s close relatives dies.”
There are also medical benefits that come with marriage, explains Mr. Rubin, citing “the ability to visit your spouse in a hospital intensive care unit or during restricted visiting hours in other parts of a medical facility, and making medical decisions if your spouse becomes incapacitated and unable to express wishes for treatment. For LGBT families, marriage means the ability to file for step-parent or joint adoption. Applying for joint foster care rights. Receiving a share of marital property if you divorce. Getting spousal or child support, child custody, and visitation if you divorce. Obtaining family rates for health, homeowners’, auto, and other types of insurance. Receiving tuition discounts and permission to use school facilities. Getting crime victims’ recovery benefits if your spouse is the victim of a crime. Obtaining immigration and residency benefits for non-citizen spouse. Even the ability to visit your spouse in jail and other places where visitors are restricted to immediate family. Combined, these benefits matter because they give LGBT families the kind of equality that can’t be obtained through any other means.”
DREAM COME TRUE
But back to Andrew and Steven and their nuptials this weekend set amidst the backdrop of residential high-rises and million dollar yachts lining the New River in Fort Lauderdale’s historic downtown. Steven, who works in the banking industry, is in disbelief that after their eight years together, “I now get to legally marry the man I want to spend the rest of my life with… that is something I never even dreamed for myself.”
Andrew, who is an advertising representative for Hotspots Media Group, gushes, “You know when you can’t imagine not spending every day with someone that it’s time for the next step in commitment.”
There are almost certainly legal battles in America’s future as marriage equality continues to be a hard lump in the throats of the evangelicals and attempts to legalize discrimination against the LGBT community under the guise of religious freedom have already been announced.
But for now, at least, as tens of thousands of loving LGBT couples choose the sanctity of marriage in a nation that promises “liberty and justice for all,” the words of Jim Obergefell, whose Supreme Court case it was that brought about marriage equality, are resounding loudly: Love Wins!