Their best argument is the lives they lead

December 05, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

One couple has been together for 28 years, another for 25. Some are raising children, some are devout churchgoers, some are both. In other words, these are not the kind of couples who show up at the Chapel of Elvis in Las Vegas one night and decide to get married on a whim.

But because they are gay, the plaintiffs in Maryland's same-sex marriage suit have to go to court to fight for the right that any drunken heterosexual couple in Vegas can exercise, no questions asked, no permission needed.

During yesterday's oral arguments before Maryland's Court of Appeals, the lawyers did the talking, making their cases to the seven judges who will decided whether a state law that limits marriage to a man and a woman is unconstitutional and discriminatory to gays.

But the real case was made by the plaintiffs, who although silent in court otherwise live lives that speak volumes about love and commitment and family. They take care of one another, they raise children together, they've been the ones at the school meetings, the hospital bedsides and, in one of their cases, at the time when funeral arrangements needed to be made - all the usual events that come with being part of a family, and all at risk because of their tenuous legal standing.

As a group, the nine couples and one single man - his partner of 14 years died several years ago - are almost comically upstanding and responsible and, on top of that, racially, ethnically and geographically diverse. If you were going to create a Noah's ark of homosexuality, you'd pick these people - there's a lawyer, a dentist, several ex-military men, a former police officer, an engineer, a couple of nurses and teachers among them. In a case like this, you pick your most poster-worthy, and the ACLU and the gay-rights group Equality Maryland, which filed the suit, did just that.

But it wasn't their character that is up for judgment. It is a Maryland law, enacted in 1973, that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Of course, as the plaintiff's lawyer argued, Maryland once also had a law banning interracial marriage.

As heated as the national debate over gay marriage has been, yesterday's arguments were surprisingly subdued, with the judges asking few questions and the attorneys' presentations largely sticking to points of case and legislated law. Which is why one of Judge Lynne A. Battaglia's questions rang out with particular clarity.

"What is the essence of marriage?" she asked, almost musingly.

The couples would answer, in part, that marriage is about recognition.

Several years ago, one of the plaintiffs, Jo Rabb, had to be taken to an emergency room in Baltimore with what turned out to be a gallbladder problem requiring surgery. Her partner, Takia Foskey, rushed to the hospital but was not allowed to see Rabb or consult with her doctors about her treatment.

"I wasn't recognized as her spouse," Foskey said outside the courthouse yesterday. "I was just a friend."

If you've ever been in that situation, where you've gotten a cryptic call from an emergency room and you dash in there with your heart pounding and your head spinning - can you imagine what it would be like to be kept at bay? My then-fiance, and now husband, had a medical emergency a couple of years ago, and I was taken right in to see him and talk to the doctors taking care of him. I didn't realize at the time what a privileged class we belonged to, simply by being heterosexual - we were no more married at that point than the couples in the courtroom yesterday.

The group won their case in Baltimore Circuit Court in January, when Judge M. Brooke Murdock ruled in their favor, writing, "There is no apparent compelling state interest in a statutory prohibition of same-sex marriage discriminating, on the basis of sex, against those individuals whose gender is identical to their intended spouses." She continued, "Tradition and societal values alone cannot sustain an otherwise unconstitutional classification."

Now the case is in the hands of Maryland's highest court, and no one is guessing how or even when it will rule. Still, while no one's calling the wedding planners yet, the plaintiffs seemed rather joyful yesterday. Maybe it was the fact that few detractors showed up, and all the sign-wavers outside the courthouse were supporting them.

Or maybe it's because the outcome of the case, while it could change their legal status, won't change their day-to-day lives.

As plaintiff Alvin Williams, who is raising three children with his partner, Nigel Simon, said, "We'll still be a family."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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