Life in the Box: SCOTUS and Me


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A marriage license is “just a piece of paper.” That’s what we used to say in the 1970s when we were deciding whether or not to live with a boyfriend or girlfriend. “Living together” was frowned upon by my parents, but two of my three brothers decided to live with their girlfriends before marriage. That gave them some time to decide whether to tie the knot, or not. They didn’t need a piece of paper to fall in love, have sex, live together, or act “as if” they were married.

In my early 20s, I never clicked enough with someone to live with them until I met Linda. It was good that we lived together first; we discovered that even with couple’s therapy, we weren’t suited to a life together. We split up after a year.

Then, I met Chris. Velcro. We moved in together, and even though my sofa didn’t look great with her living room carpet, we made things work.

Living together was okay with us; it was our only option, duh. We figured our finances separately and took legal advice about powers of attorney and such. We surrounded ourselves with supportive friends who understood about those moments when government, courts, churches, hospitals, businesses, and social events made us feel unsafe, disquieted, or just plain old non-existent.

So, this ability to get married sort of snuck up on us. We’d already given up on society’s stamp of approval, as well as the conglomeration of financial and legal benefits. When Iowa’s supreme court declared us eligible, we were shocked, happy, tentative about trusting society (no duh), and yet we were in line for our license the first day it became available in 2009.

We had a private ceremony with a minister in a local park, a public party with two kinds of cake, and now wear our rings proudly. Legally, we still had that problem with some governments, courts, churches, hospitals, businesses, and social events where our relationship was denied or ignored, but for the past few years, we’ve started calling each other “wife” in more and more public arenas. We’ve been coming out more often, even when we don’t have to.

We’re still a bit slow to hold hands or kiss in public, due to long years of stealth, but now when we’re in public, we are discovering more hidden friends than hidden enemies.  

That marriage license didn’t immediately change our lives in any fundamental, day-to-day way. Luckily, we haven’t had any dramatic legal or medical run-ins where our relationship was questioned. Just like my brothers, we chose to fall in love, have sex, live together, and act “as if” we were married, with or without anyone else’s approval or piece of paper.

Having said that, we know we’ve been lucky. We know that we have been vulnerable, even with the law changes, especially when we travel. For the past six years, we have played the “are we married now?” game whenever we have crossed state lines. Illinois? No. Then, yes. Wisconsin? No. Minnesota? No. Then, yes.

The 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it easier for us to do our federal and state taxes, but we paid $500 more to the IRS for that benefit (I guess the marriage penalty still exists in the way taxes are figured.) That ruling also makes it possible for us to inherit from each other without a mess of conflicting laws. We were now married in the eyes of the federal government, and in our own state, but not when we traveled the country.

As of June 26th of 2015, our relationship now has legal status no matter what state line we cross. Our “piece of paper” is finally meaningful to governments across America—even in places that have been fighting tooth and nail to keep it meaningless.

The ruling hasn’t changed our relationship with each other. We already have 25 years together, and never needed a government to give us permission for that. What this year’s ruling has changed is our expectations of others. The 2015 ruling actually states that not having the choice to receive a marriage license causes gay people to feel second class, and gay people’s relationships deserve as much respect as everyone else’s. We can now expect to have our relationship honored, by every state and by the federal government. That’s radical!

And, I think that’s what’s got so many anti-gay people in an uproar. They don’t want to change their opinions about gay people. They don’t want to respect gays or their family relationships. They reject the evidence that excluding gays from fair judicial practices causes harm. They feel that being unfair to gay people is a right. They want to keep that burden in place in order to disinterest people in having gay relationships. The fact that this strategy has never worked doesn’t stop them from trying. 

Changing the law is one thing; changing hearts and minds is another. I doubt the new rulings will change anything among the most radical anti-gay people. They are going to stay mad, sad, and disapproving– and will keep trying different methods of discouraging and discrediting gay people. We’re used to that. But what has surprised us is the new openness of America’s mass middle ground.

I think the changes were nudged ahead in the 1980s, when AIDS brought the word “gay” into the public arena. The disease precipitated a “coming out” of mass proportions, and made the discomfort of talking about sexual practices more tolerable because our survival depended upon it. Health officials, blushing or not, started educating people about condoms and safe sex. In the 1990s, mainstream television started depicting gays and lesbians in positive, friendly roles. Prior to that, they were villains and worse.

I’m old enough to remember the Ellen comedy series before everyone knew she was a lesbian. Her coming out episode was another big moment in turning public opinion–or at least another impetus for discussion. Now, on her talk show, she gets applause when showing her wedding pictures (she married a woman.) It’s just another day.

I know there are still plenty of people uncomfortable about same-sex relationships, but I do think the past few decades have given us a public that is more informed, less willing to believe stereotypes about gay people, and are more open to tolerance or at least indifference. And, to my surprise, it turns out that our wedding license, that “little piece of paper,” is incredibly important. I’m so glad I have one, and I’m so grateful to the Supreme Court, the President, and so many others that are now willing to recognize my primary relationship.

Some are calling this legal decision the biggest win for civil rights in America during our lifetime. I’m humbled by the efforts of all those that brought it to pass, and I’m still amazed and a little dazed that we’ve come so far. 

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Nancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box.