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Tears, Laughter, and Triumph for a Lesbian Couple in the Supreme Court’s Gay Marriage Case

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse took their challenge of Michigan's gay marriage ban all the way to the Supreme Court. VICE News was with them during their moment of victory.

by Liz Fields
Jun 27 2015, 3:05pm

Photo by Kevin Hagen/VICE News

April DeBoer wrapped her arms around her partner Jayne Rowse as they locked their eyes on giant screen erected in the LGBT community center in the heart of Ann Arbor in their home state of Michigan. Around them, a crush of supporters in multicolored shirts chatted in hushed tones, awaiting the Supreme Court's historic decision on the couple's case.

The crowd braced anxiously.

"Anybody know any jokes?" the couple's lawyer, Dana Nessel quipped, breaking a lengthy silence. She laughed, then added, "I think I'm going to vomit."

Moments later, at 10:01am, the text of Justice Anthony Kennedy's transcribed decision popped up on the screen. 

In a room filled with press, attorneys Carole Stanyar and Dana Nessel and their clients Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer watched the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage at the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

"[The] Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex," DeBoer and Rowse both read aloud, visibly melting with elation and nervous release. "And to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when a marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state."

Whistles and applause erupted around the room. "It's 5-4!" Somebody cried, referring to the justices' opinions ruling in favor and against. The phrases "I can't believe it," "Oh my God," and "victory" were repeated in the minutes that followed.

It was a moment of vindication for DeBoer and Rowse, who were among gay couples from four states who fought their way to the highest court in the land seeking the right to marry.

Related: US Supreme Court Ruling Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage Nationwide

In a room filled with press, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse watched the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage at the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

The petitioners had waited five months for the decision, ever since the justices put their class-action case on the docket. Each of the couples involved were forced to overcome numerous frustrations over the respective marriage bans in their states in the last few years, facing everything from practical and financial-related obstacles to having equal legal treatment denied their families and children.

The women in Michigan trembled with joy and passed around the tissue boxes that were scattered around the room.

"I'm shaking. This is what we've been waiting for — now we can actually be a legal family." DeBoer said as tears fogged up her glasses. "Apparently, now we have to plan a marriage," she added, to laughter.

In a room filled with press, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse hugged after watching the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage at the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

Friday's decision legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide. In one sweeping ruling, the justices answered both key questions in the case based on the Fourteenth Amendment: Does the Constitution require all 50 states to allow same-sex couples to marry, and should they recognize lawful same-sex marriages performed elsewhere? The answer was yes to both questions, according to the court's liberal-leaning majority, which included Justices Kennedy, Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

'This is what we've been waiting for — now we can actually be a legal family.'

"The marriage laws at issue are in essence unequal: Same-sex couples are denied benefits afforded opposite-sex couples and are barred from exercising a fundamental right," Kennedy said in the majority decision. "Especially against a long history of disapproval of their relationships, this denial works a grave and continuing harm, serving to disrespect and subordinate gays and lesbians."

More than a victory for gay rights, it was a victory for DeBoer and Rowse's four children, who range in age from two to six. The case began more than four years ago when the pair, both nurses, filed a suit seeking to adopt each other's children in a federal court in Michigan. At the time, only married couples could legally apply for second-parent adoptions in the state.

Related: New Jersey Jury Decides That 'Gay Conversion Therapy' Is a Fraud

Ryann Patten, 16, wears a tee shirt with a pro gay marriage message in the courtyard in front of the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

DeBoer told VICE News that Friday's decision would give the family legal protections more than anything. "Just small things like not worrying about losing jobs and losing insurance for us, and having to worry about willing our properties to each other," she said.

"It means our kids are protected," Rowse added. "In the event that something happened to either of us, [it means] that they would stay with their other parent."

In 2012, when the pair filed their lawsuit, only six states and Washington, DC allowed gay marriage. A few months later, the case morphed into a challenge of Michigan's ban on marriage itself, which was the "underlying issue," according to a district judge, who invited DeBoer and Rowse to amend their suit accordingly.

Jonnie Terry, left, hugs Gabe Linderman following the Supreme Court's decision in favor of same-sex marriage outside the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

"We never planned to challenge the marriage ban, but here we are," Rowse said Friday. One of the women's other lawyers, Carole Stanyar, told VICE News the legal team didn't set out to "challenge marriage then… We were kind of forced into it."

The same Michigan court found in March 2014 that the state's gay marriage ban was unconstitutional. In the hours following the decision, 323 gay couples in Michigan wed, but their joy was short lived. Less than 36 hours later, gay weddings were put on hold as the state moved to appeal. Months later, in November 2014, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Michigan's gay marriage ban, along with similar laws in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.

Glenna DeJong and her wife Marsha Caspar were the first lesbian couple to marry in Michigan within the small window after the ban was temporarily overturned. On Friday, DeJong was among the crowd at the community center in Ann Arbor, wearing a t-shirt branded with the logo of the advocacy group National Marriage Challenge, which has supported DeBoer and Rowse's family financially through fundraisers. The groups have sold merchandise worth "hundreds of thousands," which has mostly gone toward the pair's pro-bono legal team.

Related: Powerful Evangelicals Are Fighting Against Ads Featuring Gays

Signs in support of same-sex marriage outside the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse challenged the state's ban on gay marriage in 2013, in order to adopt each others children. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

"For every couple that got married that day, there were 45 couples that couldn't get married in Michigan," DeJong said, referring to the day last March when she married Caspar. She explained that "only four county clerk's opened their offices and there's 83 counties. Others weren't lucky to get in on time."

Even though DeJong and Caspar's union was still considered legal after gay marriages were shut down again pending appeal, the pair was later forced to go to court to fight for their right to have it recognized by the state for income tax purposes, among other practicalities.

Similar fights for equal rights for the LGBQ couples will continue, said DeJong, but today the community is simply celebrating their nationwide victory.

Carl Struble, Director of the Jackson (Michigan) LGBT Community Center, outside the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

After the appeals court upheld the marriage bans in the four states in late 2014, the couples sought an intervention by the Supreme Court, and the cases landed on the high court's docket in January. The petitioners from all four states then brought their cases together under Obergefell v. Hodges, a petition brought by Jim Obergefell against his home state of Ohio, which failed to legally recognize his marriage in Maryland to his husband, John Arthur, who has since died of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

After the decision Monday, Obergefell stood on the steps of the Supreme Court and took a call. It was from President Barack Obama.

"I just want to say congratulations," Obama told Obergefell. "Your leadership on this, you know, has changed the country."

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DeBoer, left, and Jayne Rowse hold hands during a press conference following the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

Back in Michigan, DeBoer and Rowse, expected a similar phone call from the president. Shortly after the decision was announced, the women yelled "congratulations" in unison to couples around the country, while also thanking the court.

"Thank you for understanding that this was a discriminatory case and that our rights were violated, our kids' rights were violated, and to affirm that we are just going to be a family like everybody else," Rowse said.

"This turned from an adoption case into a marriage case and then a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court and then ultimately ended up defeating marriage bans all across the nation," Nessel, the women's attorney, told VICE News. "I don't think we could have expected it and I don't think we could have asked for anything better or more wonderful than this result."

Rachel Apgar, left, and Gail Luera were among the first of the couples to obtain a marriage license and get married following the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

Outside the press conference, LGBT families, their supporters, local politicians, and members of the clergy popped bottles of champagne under rainbow streamers that hung from trees. Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor stepped up to a podium to read a few of the "juicy" parts of the court's ruling.

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family," Taylor read. "As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death… Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

Gail Luera and her wife Rachel Apgar were among the first of the couples to obtain a marriage license and get married following the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

While the court did not mention when the ruling is supposed take effect, several couples in Ann Arbor tied the knot right away. In the days before the decision, the Washtenaw county clerk's office, which encompasses Ann Arbor, placed extra staff on duty to handle the anticipated influx of marriage license applications.

Despite the finality of the Supreme Court's ruling, some states are still fighting to prevent gay marriages. Mississippi is reportedly considering pulling the plug on issuing marriage licenses altogether, with Governor Phil Bryant vowing to do all he can "to protect and defend the religious freedoms of Mississippi." Oklahoma, Alabama, and Texas were also reportedly considering similar measures.

'It's unbelievable, I really didn't expect this would happen in my lifetime.'

In Michigan, however, one couple of five years, Gail Luera, 57, and Rachel Apagar, 50, immediately ran out of their respective workplaces to the clerk's office when news of the court's decision popped up in their email inboxes. They wed in a park in Ann Arbor a couple hours later.

"It's unbelievable, I really didn't expect this would happen in my lifetime," Luera said.

Related: Gay Muslims Find Sanctuary in South Africa's 'People's Mosque'

Hadden VanDorn-Greer, 7, and her sister Nora, 9, applaud during a press conference following the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage outside the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

A few minutes later, Ann Sorrell,78, and Marge Eide, 77, stood in an Ann Arbor courtyard and exchanged vows after 43 years of partnership. Under a flower-laden arch, Sorrell's hands shook slightly as she pulled the ring from her left pocket. Afterward, she described the moment as "surreal."

"I didn't think [marriage] was a possibility until recently, so we haven't waited that long, but our young friends showed us the way," Sorrell said. "Gradually we began seeing how meaningful it is to have that piece of paper and it will come in handy I'm sure at crucial moments in our lives."

Ann Sorrell, left, and Margaret Eide, both holding flowers celebrate with friends after they were married immediately following the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage outside the Jim Toy Community Center. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

As she spoke, more and more couples arrived at the square proudly bearing their freshly signed marriage certificates.

As for DeBoer and Rowse, the pair have no immediate plans to marry and have not yet set a date. The couple's young children, who were away at a superhero camp when the ruling was handed down, may not be able to fully comprehend the implications, but they will undoubtedly be excited by the prospect of a party, Rowse said.

"Ryanne is going to be a princess in a wedding, which is what she's been talking about and Rylee wants to carry flowers, although I'm afraid she might throw them at some people," DeBoer said, referencing her youngsters, ages six and two. "The boys are looking forward to getting dressed up, and no one wants to wear a tuxedo."

Rev. Greg Briggs married Derek Davis and Christopher Berghuis following the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage at the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Photo by Kevin Hagen)

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields

This story was produced with support from LG as part of the Photos from Beyond program — click to see more photos from this series. VICE News maintains all editorial independence in the production of this content.

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