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Crossing the Threshold

Same-sex marriage is now legal. But the fight for equality is hardly over.

Crossing the Threshold
Carol Schall and Mary Townley married in San Francisco in 2008, before the state approved Proposition 8.
By Rich Griset
Photos by Ash Daniel

The scene that played out a couple of weeks ago on the grounds of Richmond’s Maymont mansion would have been unthinkable only a few years ago; standing in the Italian Garden, surrounded by dozens of friends and family members, Jessica Martinez-Edwards and Willow Martinez-Edwards tied the knot.

The notion that two women could legally marry in Virginia in 2015 shows the massive strides that LGBT – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender – advocates have made in the past decade. It was only 2006 when 57 percent of voters in Virginia ratified the Marshall-Newman Amendment to the state constitution, defining marriage as between a man and a woman and denying any legal status to same-sex couples that would “approximate the design, qualities, significance or effects of marriage.”

But by then, the dominoes had already started to fall. Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage in 2004. The military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed in 2011, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was struck down in 2013.

Last year, same-sex marriage became legally recognized in Virginia after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in the case of Bostic v. Schaefer.

This June, the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges guaranteed the recognition of same-sex marriages throughout the country. At the time of the ruling, 36 states already recognized same-sex marriage, and more than 70 percent of Americans lived in a jurisdiction where it was legal.

But the struggle is hardly over. The institution of marriage extends well beyond the courtroom. It’s a social compact not just between two people, but society at large. For same-sex couples, becoming an accepted part of the broader community is still a daily challenge.

Now that same-sex marriage has been ruled the law of the land and that ruling is unlikely to change anytime soon, we asked three married couples to tell us their stories.

Carol Schall and Mary Townley’s story begins in the quiet town of Winchester in northwest Virginia. The couple met in 1983 when Townley was hired at the private school where Schall was employed. They became fast friends and eventually started dating.

By the time they moved to Chesterfield in 1990 – Schall and Townley are both 54 – they were already in a committed partnership and bought a house together the following year. Desiring to affirm their devotion to each other but unable to legally marry, they held a commitment ceremony at a church in Richmond.

“A commitment ceremony is very close to a wedding,” explains Townley, “except it wasn’t recognized by the state. We had a reception afterwards. It was everything that a wedding would be.”

For the two, who had never been showy about their relationship, asking others to witness their union wasn’t necessarily a carefree experience.

“I felt embarrassed because I had become accustomed to keeping this part of my life secret, to keeping the secret that Mary was my life, my other, my spouse,” says Schall. “To stand in front of a church and say, ‘This is my partner for life’ … that was a little overwhelming and a little scary because it was being out in a way that we hadn’t been out before.”

In 2008, voters in California approved Proposition 8, overturning the state’s previous decision to allow same-sex marriage. Prior to the passage of Proposition 8, Townley and Schall traveled with several other local couples to be legally married in San Francisco.

But that didn’t mean their marriage was recognized in Virginia, and while they say they’ve rarely faced discrimination, they have run into some problems.

When Townley was pregnant with their daughter Emily, she woke one morning in extreme pain and had to be taken to the emergency room. After dropping her off, Schall left to move her car. On returning, she was informed that she couldn’t go back to see her partner because she wasn’t considered a spouse or blood relative.

For nearly an hour, Schall could only peek in through the emergency room door, unable to receive information from doctors until Townley was conscious enough to give verbal consent. Though the couple had legal paperwork to show they assumed responsibility for each other, Schall didn’t have time to go home and retrieve it.

Crossing the Threshold
Carol Schall and Mary Townley at home in Midlothian with their daughter, Emily.

When the couple went to renew their daughter’s passport, they ran into a problem they often do with forms: what to do with the blank space listed “Father.” They crossed it out and wrote mother, then added Schall’s name. The post office worker handling the passport renewal wasn’t pleased.

“She literally took the pen and scribbled out Carol’s information and said ‘You don’t matter,’” recalls Townley. “It was just awful.”

The couple, who live in the Stonehenge community in Midlothian, had to return home to retrieve their daughter’s birth certificate, which lists no birth father. Without having both women listed on the passport, “If we were traveling and something happened to me,” says Townley, “Emily would become the ward of the state.”

In summer 2013, the couple received an email from the Human Rights Campaign, a lobbying organization for LGBT issues. The organization was looking for Virginia couples to tell their stories, and the couple responded. The purpose of the email was to find people who would be willing to join a lawsuit to grant same-sex couples the ability to marry.

Townley and Schall were chosen and joined the suit of Timothy Bostic and Tony London of Norfolk. It was the case that would legalize same-sex marriage in Virginia.

“It was overwhelming to be a part of those court cases,” says Schall. “Coming out of the Fourth District Court of Appeals, the crowd was just overwhelmingly large. The roar of the crowd as we left the courthouse – I don’t think I’ll ever experience something like that ever again. It was huge.”

Now the two are looking at colleges for their daughter and have the same concerns as other soon-to-be empty nesters.

Earlier this year, on the eve of their 30th anniversary, they renewed their vows on the steps of the John Marshall Courthouse with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring officiating.

“That felt very, very different,” when compared to the commitment ceremony, says Schall. “That felt happy and joyful and exciting. Finally being able to use the term wife is just huge. When I talk about my wife, it’s no longer a moment of coming out; it’s no longer a moment of sharing a secret.”

Looking ahead, they both see a brighter future for sexual minorities and say they are encouraged by progress being made for transgender individuals.

Crossing the Threshold
Philip Crosby and David Allan Ballas were legally married in Washington, D.C., in 2010.

“Comparing 1990 to today, it’s like comparing a light of sunshine to a dark time where people were still allowed to fully discriminate against us,” says Schall. “It’s quite different.”

For Richmond’s Philip Crosby and David Allan Ballas, the fact that same-sex marriage was once legal in Washington, D.C., and not in Virginia was a source of amusement.

“It was sort of a joke when we’d cross the Potomac,” says Crosby, 58. “I’d look over at David and say ‘Hi, husband.’ Then we’d cross back the other way and say ‘Hi, nonhusband.’”

Crosby, the managing director of the gay-centric theater company Richmond Triangle Players, gets a little sheepish when talking about how they met 18 years ago.

“We met in a bar, just like everybody,” he says. “And we were introduced by a mutual friend. It sort of took off, and we went on a couple dates after that, and it worked.”

The Church Hill couple had never considered marriage as a possibility until it became legal in Washington six years ago. Crosby and Ballas had already planned a trip to the nation’s capital and decided to add getting a marriage license to their visit. As few people wanted to get married on Friday the 13th, they were able to find an officiant and tied the knot in front of a small group of friends.

“We didn't tell any family or friends we were doing it,” says Ballas, noting that some members of their families weren’t entirely on board with same-sex marriage at the time. “We were doing it for us, not trying to rock any boats on either side of the family.”

Though they’d told a handful of people, it was only after it became legal in Virginia that they informed all of their friends and family. Both the state and national rulings surprised Crosby.

“When it became legal, we were as shocked as everybody,” he says. “We were married legally and everywhere.”

While encouraged by the recent developments, Crosby says there will probably be some pushback.

“The battle’s not over,” Crosby says. “You can still be fired for being gay; you can still have an apartment not rented to you. The gay community is in the same place that the African-American community was after Loving was repealed,” referencing the case of Loving v. Virginia which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. “You can get married, but you can still have these things taken away from you.”

In the ongoing presidential race, gay marriage is not the political hot potato it once was, but longtime political analyst Bob Holsworth says it’s because the conversation has been reframed as one of religious liberty.

Crossing the Threshold
Willow Martinez-Edwards and Jessica Martinez-Edwards tie the knot at Maymont Mansion in Richmond in August, a scene that until recently would have been unthinkable.

“Some of the candidates have called for a constitutional amendment to same-sex marriage, but the more prevalent notion is to suggest that you’re going to advocate for religious liberties,” says Holsworth, former dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. He mentions the constantly cited example of whether a baker should have to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple if that person feels the union is against his or her religious beliefs.

“It will certainly be used during the primary campaign to mobilize voters around the idea that religious liberty ought to be extended in a number of instances where same-sex advocates would say it’s discrimination,” he says. “There is a clear division of public opinion on this, and we can expect to see it in the presidential campaign.”

Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia which previously fought against same-sex marriage, now sees her organization’s focus as protecting the rights of the religious.

“We were told for years that all advocates for same-sex marriage wanted was the right to marry, but what we’re learning is that they want anyone who believes that marriage is only between a man and a woman [to be] denounced as a bigot and driven from the public square,” Cobb says. When asked about accusations from LGBT advocates that not serving someone on the basis of sexual orientation constitutes discrimination, she insists its people of faith who are being discriminated against.

“They hold no animosity towards anyone,” she says. “Because of that belief, they’ve been demonized by the secular left. They’re called hateful and bigots when in fact they are the targets of hate and bigotry.”

“Should someone be denied a license to be a lawyer or a doctor if they believe that marriage is only between a man and a woman?” asks Cobb. “Should a ministry that takes care of the poor be forced to give up its nonprofit status because it refuses to accept modern culture sexual orthodoxy? These are real issues the General Assembly is going to have to wrestle with and work to ensure people aren’t punished simply because of what they feel about marriage.”

For Bill Harrison, executive director of the organization Diversity Richmond, this argument is an old one.

“History is repeating itself,” he says. “I’m 61, and I remember when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and so many people predicted the end of the world. [People said] it was the end of civilization as we knew it. That did not happen. Sexual orientation is no more chosen than we choose our race.”

Harrison says most of the same-sex marriages he knows of involve people who have already been in committed relationships for decades. Because of this, it may actually help a favorite conservative talking point: the divorce rate.

“The ironic twist to this is … we are going to help that divorce rate, because the majority of our folks who have gotten married have already been together a very long time, and they’re not going to be divorced,” he says.

For Henrico’s Jessica and Willow Martinez-Edwards, the fusing of their names came before they were married. The couple, who were interviewed prior to their wedding, met at a mutual friend’s birthday party in the West End and traded phone numbers.

“We’ve been inseparable ever since,” says Jessica, 28. “We’ve spent every single day together almost for the last three years.”

Initially they considered getting married on the Outer Banks, but after same-sex marriage was legalized in Virginia, decided that a wedding at the Gilded Age Maymont Mansion was the better option financially.

“We’ve always both wanted to get married there and have an outside wedding, so it worked out perfectly,” says Willow, 34. “The reception is at Lakeside Tavern, where we both did karaoke when we first started dating.”

Though Jessica and Willow had previous marriages to other people – including Willow’s first marriage to the father of her two children – this was both’s first big wedding. When they met, both were going through divorces. Jessica had previously been married to a woman, and Willow was going through her second divorce, also to a woman.

Over the years, Jessica says she’s become more comfortable with herself, including with her appearance. Growing up, she wore her hair down to her waist but decided to shave her head at the age of 19. She’s worn it short ever since.

“I like it the way it is, it looks better, and it makes me feel better about myself,” says Jessica of her spiky hair.

At press time the two were about to embark on their honeymoon to Baltimore and Washington but were just pleased to have celebrated their wedding where they live.

“I just feel like Richmond itself has come a long way,” Jessica says. “This whole gay marriage thing: We’ve been fighting for years and years, and we’ve finally won.”

© 2017 Chesterfield Observer