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Celebrating 20 Years Since First Legal Same-Sex Marriage

Jason A. Michael

The year was 1989. I had finally accepted the fact that I was gay and started the long, tedious process of coming out shortly after turning 17. It was a time of liberation for me. I threw off the shackles of convention — and my Southern Baptist Christian upbringing — and accepted who I was and had always been. 

Around the same time, I lost a significant amount of weight. I was feeling good about myself. Though we did nothing physical, I had found the first love of my life and he introduced me to a new world of books and music and movies that touched my little gay soul. I dreamed of being with him forever. 

I never considered getting married, though. Living happily ever after, yes. But getting married? I accepted the fact that people like me didn’t get that privilege. 

In 1993, while living in Miami, I had a commitment ceremony with my boyfriend Carlos. It was a small affair in our apartment. We had a nice cake, though, and monogrammed napkins and matchbooks. I thought it was the closest I’d ever come to marriage and, at the time, I was happy with it. We wore matching gold bands on our fingers, and I felt married in my heart.

Fast forward to 1999. Carlos was long gone and I had just started working at Pride Source and its print publication, Between The Lines newspaper. The subject of marriage equality was mentioned in the pages of the paper often. To me, it still seemed something of a pipe dream. Plus, I thought there were other issues that should be the priority. There was still no Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Clinton had lied and the gays were still not allowed to serve openly in the military. We had bigger fish to fry.

But the marriage issue continued to grow and find its way into the American consciousness. Mind you, a lot of the talk about the topic was negative. The first legal same-sex marriage ceremony took place in San Francisco in February 2004. San Fransisco City Assessor/Recorder Mabel Teng officiated the service of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, a lesbian couple who had been together for 50 years.

Massachusetts became the first state to legalize marriage equality just three months later. The backlash was swift. On Nov. 2, fine, upstanding Americans in 11 states voted for constitutional amendments to define marriage as between one man and one woman. The amendments passed in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Utah and Oregon. And, yes, right here in Michigan, where the battle to defeat the amendment had been led by former Between The Lines publisher Susan Horowitz. And the amendments didn’t just win, they won by huge margins. 

Over the next decade, the push for marriage equality grew. If there was a “gay agenda,” marriage equality was on the top of the list. By 2014, same-sex marriage had become legal in states that contained more than 70 percent of the nation’s population. In most states, marriage equality had been handed down through the courts, although Maine, Maryland and Washington had become the first states to legalize marriage equality through popular vote.

Then, low and behold, marriage became the law of the land in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage making it legal in all 50 states.

Be still my bitter heart, we had done it. My 17-year-old self rejoiced from somewhere deep inside me. Mind you, I certainly had no marriage prospects at the time. The same is true today, yet I relish the fact that should hell freeze over and someone actually proposes to me, I have that option. It represented an end to a sort of second-class citizenship.  

A golden love

The year is now 2020 and I was given the task of writing Phyllis Lyon’s obituary. She was 95 at the time of her passing and had lived a full life. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she relocated to California and earned a degree in journalism from the University of California – Berkeley. Just a few years out of college, Lyon moved to Seattle, and it was there that she met Dorothy Louise Taliaferro Martin, known to her friends as Del.

The two reportedly became involved romantically in 1952 and started living together in a Castro Street apartment in San Francisco on Valentine's Day 1953. Two years later, in 1955, they co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first social and political organization for lesbians in the U.S., which took its name from a collection of lesbian love poems named Songs of Bilitis.

The couple served as co-presidents of the DOB and editor of its publication, The Ladder, for many years. Later, they became one of the first lesbian couples to join the National Organization for Women. And that’s just an overview of their many, many accomplishments. 

"Phyllis Lyon fought for LGBT equality when it was neither safe nor popular to do so," said California State Sen. Scott Weiner, chairman of the LGBTQ caucus, at the time of her death. "Phyllis and her wife Del played a crucial role in winning the rights and dignity our community now enjoys. We owe Phyllis intense gratitude and love for her work."

After being married in 2004, the couple’s marriage was voided by the California Supreme Court just months later. The state’s high court reversed its decision and finally legalized marriage equality and the couple would marry again in June 2008. This time the service was officiated by Mayor Gavin Newsom himself. Sadly, Martin died just two months after they married for a second time. Lyon had to live for 18 years without her longtime love. Still, it’s remarkable they made it 55 years.

So thank you, Phyllis and Del, for being pioneers. I feel the chances of me ever walking down the aisle are rather slim. But should I ever make it to the altar, I’ll give a nod to the two ladies who paved the way.  

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