'It's a truly historic day': DOMA ruling means big changes for local gay couples

News-DemocratJune 26, 2013 

Landmark rulings Wednesday from the U.S. Supreme Court rendered the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California's Prop 8 unconstitutional Wednesday, laws that affected many people in the metro-east -- especially gay married couples. Here are some of their stories:

Todd Smith and David Kaplan

On a dark February night, David Kaplan rushed to a St. Louis County hospital as he heard that his partner, Todd Smith, had been shot.

Smith, then a reporter for a St. Louis weekly newspaper, was the sole survivor of the Kirkwood City Council shooting in 2008 that left six people dead. Smith was at the hospital being treated for a single gunshot wound when Kaplan arrived.

Kaplan was approached by reporters outside the hospital, asking if he was connected to any of the shooting victims. But he declined to speak, because Smith was not yet public about his homosexuality. "I wasn't going to out Todd on television during the shooting," Kaplan said.

Besides, Kaplan had bigger things on his mind. While he and Smith were then registered domestic partners in St. Louis, he had forgotten to bring their papers with him in the panicked rush to get to the hospital -- and the hospital was outside the city limits, so he did not know if they would be honored.

"I went there not knowing if I would be permitted to see him," Kaplan said.

Fortunately the hospital was "wonderful," and a day later Smith was recovering in the hospital after the first of several surgeries.

It was there in his hospital room that Smith asked Kaplan to marry him.

"I've always said since then that I wanted a non-drug-induced proposal too," Kaplan said, laughing.

Smith and Kaplan had been dating for two years by the night of the Kirkwood shooting. They met "the new old-fashioned way" -- online, as friends who eventually became partners.

A year after the shooting, they married in Boston in what Kaplan calls "a traditional interfaith gay Jewish wedding." They stood beneath the chuppah, signed the ketubah -- a Jewish marriage contract -- and broke the glass before a Reconstructionist rabbi, with family in attendance.

But Smith could not be on Kaplan's health insurance through his employment as a management professor at St. Louis University because they were not a heterosexual couple; and in fact, they are still not sure whether the ruling making DOMA unconstitutional will change that.

Smith now works at the nonprofit Fathers Support Center in St. Louis, and the couple moved into a house in Edwardsville in part because of a more progressive atmosphere.

"Todd and I want to become parents, and we are in the adoption process," Kaplan said. "Edwardsville is a good school system and we felt we would do well here."

While Illinois recognizes civil unions, Missouri does not recognize civil unions or same-sex marriage. "I joke about it, that every day I cross the river and magically become single," Kaplan said.

While they have had some "pushback" from people who tell them they're not really married, Kaplan said they have "ordered their lives" to avoid those people.

Smith said there is more to their marriage than a civil union can offer. "People got 'married' in the 1990s, but it was just a commitment ceremony; it wasn't the same to us," Smith said. "Our marriage is equal to anyone else's. Why should it be less?"

The financial problems DOMA created for them included the inability to file a joint tax return, the potential for significant inheritance taxes if one were to die before the other, and the uncertainty of legal status in emergency cases. "In sickness and in health is the vow, but it's in sickness when being married really matters," Kaplan said.

A decade or two ago, neither imagined that getting married would even be an option for them as gay men in America. "To see the tide turning is really amazing," Kaplan said.

Still, even after the decision there are questions. They live in Illinois, but work in Missouri, which has a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. "I feel like I've gone from a second-class citizen to one step up, but not yet in the first-class car," Kaplan said. "I think it's a huge, wonderful step, and I'm happy that so many more people have recognition. We can celebrate tonight, and there's stuff to do tomorrow."

Smith agreed. "What we really hope for is to get (same-sex) marriage rights in Illinois," he said. The bill for those rights will come before the state legislature in the fall.

Kaplan and Smith have been in the adoption pool for a year, after searching for an agency that would work with them. "The state gave us the runaround, and I don't know if it was bureaucracy or because we're gay," Kaplan said. "Even in a state like Illinois, which is progressive, one of the boxes asks what your infertility issue is. We didn't want to leave it blank, so we just wrote, 'gay.'"

And it's partly for their as-yet unknown child that Smith and Kaplan were glad for the ruling.

"We don't want our child to think that we are less married, less committed or less a family than any other family," Kaplan said. "We just want to get on with our lives like everyone else."

Meredith 'Macie' Boyd and Gail Wojtowicz

When a plane crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Col. Gail Wojtowicz was there -- and Meredith Boyd had to wait to find out if she had survived.

Wojtowicz had served in the U.S. Air Force since 1980. She and Boyd, known to her friends as "Macie," had met that spring and were dating, though it was necessary to keep it quiet to protect Wojtowicz's military career.

Wojtowicz was in the Pentagon building that day, but was not injured. She was able to get an email to Boyd about two hours after the attack, and asked her to relay a message to her mother -- whom Boyd had not yet met -- that she was all right.

Even under "Don't Ask Don't Tell" rules in effect at the time, it could have been dangerous for Wojtowicz if anyone knew she was gay, though she had formed friendships with other gay women assigned to the Pentagon in her time in the service. "We were all under that same pressure together," Wojtowicz said.

But Sept. 11 seemed to "clarify things very quickly" for them, Boyd said. "It showed us pretty dramatically that life is short and there are really no guarantees, even if you live in the most powerful nation in the world," she said.

Most of Wojtowicz's career was long before "Don't Ask Don't Tell," and she saw a lot of people forced out of the Air Force early, afraid of losing their pensions if they were accidentally "outed."

So when Boyd and Wojtowicz decided to commit themselves to each other, it had to be quiet. Their Episcopal diocese in South Carolina, where Boyd lived, did not bless same-sex marriages. So they had to construct a ceremony where a non-clergy member blessed their union, then the priest blessed their home and they shared communion together.

Too many witnesses could have endangered Wojtowicz's career, so only a few family members attended the ceremony. Then Boyd followed Wojtowicz to her next posting in Hawaii, as air mobility operations commander.

Technically Boyd was listed as Wojtowicz's mother's caregiver. "Everyone saw through that, and embraced her as my spouse," Wojtowicz said. Still, though Wojtowicz had two people to support, she was denied family housing on base.

For Boyd, a lifelong pursuit of religious studies was stymied both as a gay person and as a woman. The response she received when she first considered seminary in the mid-1970s was that "girls don't do that," which was also the attitude often faced by women entering the military at that time, she said.

"That had quite an impact on me," Boyd said. "Just because a bunch of people tell you it isn't so, can't be so or shouldn't be so, doesn't meant that a lot of folks don't go ahead and pursue it."

Boyd's religious studies have drawn her to new perspectives on her faith and her orientation, she said, particularly cultural context for Scripture.

"Those of us who identify ourselves as Christian fall back too easily on what we were taught as children ... We fall too easily into a reliance on the people that we choose as our spiritual leaders," she said. "We have an expectation that they've done their homework, they have the answers, and we don't have to do that study, searching and speaking on our own."

In 2006, Wojtowicz retired from the U.S. Air Force after a career of 26 years. She now works as a civilian at Scott Air Force Base. Boyd has finished her degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and plans to enter an Episcopal seminary in the fall on a course for chaplaincy and pastoral care.

"We've got things going against us: women in the military, women in the male-dominated religious world, and being gay," Wojtowicz said. "But that didn't stop us from having a calling, it didn't stop us from pursuing our passions, for the Air Force and for religious studies."

But until Wednesday, they did not consider traveling to one of the states that has authorized same-sex marriage. "Would you ask a heterosexual couple to go to South Dakota to validate their marriage?" Boyd asked. "If we did that, then five years from now we move to another state, do we go through the ceremony again? How many legal hoops does a couple have to go through to be considered equal to a heterosexual couple?"

But all that changed when the Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional. Boyd said she was moved to tears as she read the ruling, and they have begun talking about a New York wedding.

Wojtowicz said the civil union just wasn't the same to them, with their beliefs. "The purpose of the religious ceremony is to have a community that surrounds you, recognizes your union, acknowledges it and celebrates it with you," she said. "That's what a marriage is, no matter who you are."

But under DOMA, Boyd was not eligible for any benefits through Wojtowicz's military service. If Wojtowicz dies before her, she would not have received a pension. They have prepared the proper legal paperwork that they hope will protect themselves, but were trying not to focus too much hope on the Supreme Court -- on changes they couldn't have predicted a decade ago.

"We don't understand what the fuss is all about," Boyd said. "These are people. They should have the same rights and responsibilities as any heterosexual couple. Some of us learned with the civil rights movement that 'separate but equal' doesn't exist. You can't say, 'For this group, we will make it almost the same.'"

But now, Boyd said, the ruling has helped reaffirm her faith. "Clearly, as evidenced by today's decisions, the Holy Spirit still moves in the hearts and minds of mere mortals."

Colin Murphy of Metro-East Pride

Last Saturday, rainbow flags flew in downtown Belleville for the annual Pridefest, and same-sex marriage was the center of a hopeful celebration.

Colin Murphy of O'Fallon is president of Metro-East Pride, and when the ruling was released Wednesday, he was "absolutely elated." He and his partner were married in Iowa in 2010, and with the new ruling, their marriage is acknowledged by the federal government.

"This was everything that we could have hoped for," Murphy said. "I think everyone expected that the court was not going to legalize marriage across the board, but it struck down DOMA."

Murphy and his partner have been together for 15 years. But he could not give his partner's name, because it is still legal for him to be fired from his job for being gay.

In the three years they have been married, DOMA has prevented them from filing a joint tax return. With the new civil union law in Illinois, this year they were able to file a joint return at the state level and still had to file separately at the federal level, which cost them a great deal more in taxes and could have triggered an audit, Murphy said.

There are 1,100 rights at the federal level alone that Murphy and his partner just gained, he said. But it isn't just about money and taxes.

"In our society, marriage does mean something, and that's why you see such a strong opinion from both sides," Murphy said. "It means acceptance of our relationship in the eyes of our government. It speaks that our families are just as relevant as heterosexual families... This was a first step toward full equality of LGBT couples. It's a truly historic day."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service