Decision stuns plaintiffs

Same-sex marriage advocates shocked, plan to keep fighting

September 19, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN REPORTER

When word spread late last week that Maryland's highest court was close to a decision on the same-sex marriage lawsuit, Charles Blackburn and Glen Dehn began planning their wedding.

They couldn't help themselves. They felt certain that legal recognition of their 29-year relationship was within their grasp. The wedding would be at the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon. Blackburn's daughter would give him away. They would "invite the world."

Yesterday, those plans were put on hold. The state's highest court denied marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, leaving plaintiffs feeling shock, anger and disappointment that a three-year legal battle did not pay off.

The plaintiffs - nine couples and one man whose partner has died - vowed to fight on. They said they knew loss and adversity, more even than most people, and they expressed optimism that full marriage rights would one day be theirs.

But gathering for a news conference yesterday on the steps of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill, they seemed stunned and shaken. They hugged one another warmly and blinked back tears as they wondered how they would explain the court's decision to their children, their parents, their families.

"I have to go home and explain to my daughters why what we fought for in the last three years not only didn't come to pass but was totally repudiated," said Lisa Polyak, who was one of the plaintiffs, along with her partner of 25 years, Gita Deane. The couple has two children.

Polyak, 46, said she was stung by the "cruel" tone of the decision, which did not offer same-sex couples civil unions or any other protections that fall short of full marriage. "We didn't expect complete rejection," Polyak said. "We didn't expect the court in these times in this state to kick gays and lesbians to the curb, which is what they did."

Plaintiffs Stacey Kargman-Kaye, 39, and Jodi Kelber-Kaye, 43, spent last weekend in New York at the wedding of Stacey's brother. The couple's two sons, who are 9 and 4, both had roles in the wedding, and Stacey and Jodi thought that one day soon the boys might be in their wedding as well.

"It made us think that the decision would come out in our favor," said Stacey Kargman-Kaye. "It was such a wonderful celebration of love and family, and of course, we thought, we would have the same thing."

Jodi Kelber-Kaye said she wanted to fight on, but yesterday felt like her family needed to "regroup and hug each other." Word of the court decision came after the couple's 9-year-old son had already left for school, and Stacey and Jodi planned to break the news to him when he got home.

"We'll just tell him the facts," Stacey Kargman-Kaye said. She just wishes she could understand the reasoning a little better. "I just don't get it," she said, "that people could make a decision against family, against love, against kindness."

Jodi Kelber-Kaye, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said her study of the women's rights movement has given her an understanding that changes does not come quickly or without a fight. But, she said, "I just hope it doesn't take 70 years like it did for suffrage."

The plaintiffs said their battle was not over. They pledged to work with the gay rights group Equality Maryland to lobby the General Assembly to pass legislation granting marriage rights to same-sex couples.

One plaintiff, John Lestitian of Hagerstown, said he believes the court's decision will serve as a rallying cry to fight harder for gay rights in Maryland. Lestitian's partner, Jim Bradley, died suddenly in 2003 at the age of 33. Because the house they shared was in Bradley's name, Lestitian did not inherit it and was forced to move out.

"We cannot lose. We can only choose to fight onward," Lestitian said in an e-mail yesterday. "We represent a strong and proud people that have been beaten down but have found hope and a way forward for us and our families."

Patrick Wojahn and Dave Kolesar, plaintiffs in the case, had a commitment ceremony two years ago, partly at the urging of Wojahn's mother. "We were hoping the court case would help make it official," said Wojahn, 32.

They know their commitment ceremony does not grant them the rights that marriage would. Kolesar, now 29, almost died in 1996 from a rare sinus infection that spread to his brain. The couple wants to be married partly for the guarantee that they could make medical decisions for each other.

Yesterday they said the court took the easy way out in maintaining the status quo. "It would have been much harder [for the justices] if they could see us, get to know us, and see how discrimination affects our lives," Wojahn said.

In the three years since the lawsuit was filed, the plaintiffs have come to know one another and their families. They come together at meetings regarding the case, at rallies and in courtrooms. And when they gathered again yesterday on the church steps, they leaned on each other in the bright sunshine and felt some comfort and strength.

"We've grown together," said Blackburn, 74, "and we're not about to quit fighting."

And while the plaintiffs believe full marriage rights for gays and lesbians are inevitable, they said they need the protections of marriage now to care for their families.

"We're not going away," said Lisa Polyak, who lives with her partner and children in Homeland. "We're still parents and it would be derelict of us not to continue to ask for things we need for our family."

Polyak told of how she was driving her two daughters, ages 8 and 11, to school yesterday morning and the youngest counted all the lawn signs that have been distributed by Equality Maryland to show support for same-sex marriage. They say, "Civil marriage is a civil right."

Polyak said her daughter, aware that the court's decision was imminent, said in the car, "I hope they see enough signs to decide that it's OK."

Choking back tears yesterday afternoon, Polyak said, "I don't know how many more signs they needed."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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