Field Notes: Gay Couples Ask: Will Our Right to Marry Survive the Next Four Years?

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Field Notes

By ALISON LEIGH COWAN

Harper Nunnemaker, 27, and Caitlyn McLeish, 26, who have been dating for about a year and a half, had planned to marry in 2018, and though that date is more than a year away, they had already begun to make preparations for what they hoped would be a memorable occasion.

The election results on Nov. 8 changed all that.

The Ohio couple has instead decided to go ahead with a quick ceremony on Dec. 16, to be held at Sidewinder, a Cincinnati coffee shop that was the setting for their first date and that has rabbits patrons can pet.

“I’m just hoping not many people get coffee in the evening,” Ms. Nunnemaker said of the ceremony, which will take place during regular business hours.

Angel David Nieves, an associate professor of American studies at Hamilton College in upstate New York, said that he and Richard Foote “never thought” they would actually marry; their commitment to each other was never in question for the 23 years they have been together. Their student debt from graduate school would usually cut short any talk of marriage and merging their financial affairs, Dr. Nieves said.

Then, as election night unfolded, Dr. Nieves recalled turning to Mr. Foote and saying, “I really think we need to rethink this marriage idea.” The two now plan to marry in the next few weeks in a civil ceremony in nearby Seneca Falls.

Same-sex marriage, which has been legal in all 50 states since the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, was not one of the key issues raised by President-elect Donald J. Trump during the 2016 campaign. And when pressed on the matter on “60 Minutes” by Lesley Stahl the week after the election, Mr. Trump made it clear that trying to reverse the Supreme Court decision wasn’t high on his list of priorities.

“These cases have gone to the Supreme Court,” he told Ms. Stahl. “They’ve been settled. And I’m — I’m fine with that.”

Yet one could forgive these couples for thinking Mr. Trump may be of two minds about gay marriage. They need only revisit the interview he gave last winter to Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” in which Mr. Trump said that he disagreed with the Obergefell ruling, adding, “If I’m elected, I would be very strong on putting certain judges on the bench that I think maybe could change things.”

“It’s hard to trust that it’s settled in his mind,” said Danielle Barrows, 26, who got engaged in June to DeAnna Britton, 27, when Ms. Barrows arranged for Ms. Britton to be served tea with a hand-stamped spoon that said, “Be My Wife?” They had planned to save up for a splashy affair next September, to be held in Provincetown, Mass., with many of their friends and family in attendance. The unexpected election of Mr. Trump upended their plans as well. Instead, they were married on Monday at City Hall in Dover, N.H.

Overturning the Obergefell ruling would be a tall order, according to Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University, who said he generally identified as Republican. Although he did note that there was a potential lower-court test case in Texas, where the state’s current Bill of Rights has a provision defining marriage as something that must take place between a man and a woman, he said it was unlikely that the Supreme Court would revisit its decision — even if the makeup of the court drastically changes over the next four years and becomes much more conservative.

Laurence H. Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School, called the Obergefell ruling, “a decision as close to being etched in stone as any Supreme Court decision in recent years.”

Still, those facts have not kept some gay and lesbian couples from feeling anxious about their future under a Trump administration — fears they are sharing on Twitter and Facebook, and on websites like Reddit, Curve and Vice. In a Vice article headlined “Why I’m Marrying My Partner Before Trump Can Take My Rights Away,” Zach Brooke, a freelance writer in Wisconsin, wrote: “The morning after Donald Trump was named president-elect, my partner and I calmly discussed how his presidency might affect us personally. We concluded that the possibility of future same-sex marriage restrictions is very real, and that if we wanted to get married, the time is now or never.”

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Mr. Brooke added, “We don’t know how dark the future will be for LGBTQ individuals in the four years to come, but we do know it will be harder to dissolve existing marriages than to prevent new ones, and we’d rather not take our chances.”

What seems to trouble some of these gay and lesbian couples the most are not the specific positions taken by Mr. Trump, but those of his more conservative supporters.

As Cathy Ruse, a senior fellow for legal studies for the Family Research Council, wrote in a blog post for the conservative group published this summer: “We are not done with marriage yet.”

And many of the couples are troubled by the fact that the newly elected vice president, Mike Pence, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when governor of Indiana. Opponents of the bill have argued that it would open the door to widespread discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Jim Obergefell, the widower whose name is on the 2015 Supreme Court decision affirming same-sex marriage because of the lawsuit he brought demanding Ohio authorities name him on his husband’s death certificate, said he doesn’t know what gay and lesbian couples can expect under a Trump administration.

“I am not sure any of us do,” he said. “I’m not sure he does either. He says one thing, and five minutes later, he says the exact opposite.”

Still, Mr. Obergefell said, if people are rushing off to marry out of some grim concern that their rights will not be there tomorrow, “it’s a shame that something that should be so joyous and about nothing more than love is being done out of fear.”

Stephanie Holloway, 41, a graphic designer, is raising two young daughters with her fiancée, Leseliey Welch, 38, in Ferndale, Mich. They have been together for 13 years but had resisted getting married until now, in part because they have had their hearts set on having “the whole shebang” with 50 guests on Martha’s Vineyard. The last few weeks have left them badly shaken and going “back and forth” about what to do and when.

In a bid to help those feeling anxious, there is now a website, LoveTrumpsHatred.com, started by Mitzie Whelan, a self-described “straight, Midwesterner,” which showcases vendors willing to offer free services for same-sex couples wishing to marry in the next few weeks.

Ordained as a Universal Life minister last year, Ms. Whelan has only performed two weddings, both times for friends. But wanting to help those who are concerned about their future under the new administration, she announced on Facebook that she was available for any same-sex couple in Ohio wishing to marry between now and Inauguration Day.

“There’s not a lot I can do, but that is something I can do,” Ms. Whelan said.

Other businesses have since piled on. Now, viewers to her website can browse listings from 26 states, including 17 that are traditionally Republican. One Texas business, An Itch to Stitch, is offering free alterations, while the Hippie Chick Bakery in New Hampshire has volunteered wedding cake for “up to 44 people.” Other listings dangle free legal services, floral design, photography and live music.

Ms. Nunnemaker, one half of the Ohio couple planning to marry in a coffee shop, said her mother voted for Mr. Trump, which has caused some tension between the two. Friends of Ms. Nunnemaker have counseled her to “put my foot down” and not invite her to the wedding.

Yet, Ms. Nunnemaker said that she “cannot imagine cutting my mother out of my life,” and won’t.

“I try to have respect for everyone’s values,” she said.

Next Friday, when she and Ms. McLeish pronounce their love for each other near the coffee house’s rabbit hutch, where it all began, Ms. Nunnemaker’s mother will be one of the handful of guests who will be standing by, ready to congratulate the newlyweds as they start their new lives.

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