When Cheryl Rau and Pat McCutcheon first began their relationship back in the 1980s, they never dreamed that one day they would be married as wife and wife. At that point, the concept of a woman and woman marrying — or man and man for that matter — was ludicrous. The couple describes that era as a time when homophobic people were still burning crosses on same-sex couples' lawns in acts of hate.
"It wasn't like how it is now, how you see it all over TV and movies," said Rau. "It wasn't accepted as it is today."
Now it is 24 years later, and attitudes change over time. A little more than a month ago, the California Supreme Court decided that the idea of same-sex marriage wasn't quite so ludicrous. In a landmark decision, it ruled that same sex-couples could legally wed in the State of California, just like a man and woman. This Tuesday was the first day they were free to do so if they chose. And on Tuesday, couples all around California and Humboldt County did exactly that.
Jamila Tharp and Michelle Hasting had the first scheduled wedding in Humboldt — the first one open to the public, anyway. (Another couple got married earlier, but they kept the ceremony confidential.) Tharp and Hasting used to come down to the county courthouse every Valentine's Day to request a marriage license, and were denied every year because it was unconstitutional. Finally, Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., they held their marriage ceremony inside County Clerk/Recorder Carolyn Crnich's sun-filled office, packed to full capacity with family, friends, photographers and members of the local press. They held fresh flowers and had a hard time holding back tears as Crnich read out the vows. Then they said "I do." After years, they were officially married.
"I cannot express my excitement that we are being recognized equally and fairly in California," said Tharp. "But it's more than just equality. It's about fairness and love."
Crnich said that she had about seven more same-sex wedding appointments scheduled that day. Rau and McCutcheon's long-delayed nuptials were among them.
But Rau and McCutcheon already had their self-described "true wedding" a decade ago. Ten years ago, same-sex couples in Humboldt County were legally recognized, but only in Arcata. In August of 1998, the city made a small footprint in time by establishing and recognizing something called same-sex domestic partnerships. As of then, the city was only one of 12 in California to do so. The title resembled a marriage but still lacked over a thousand rights that husband and wife couples received on a daily basis. California followed suit the next year and established domestic partnerships statewide.
Rau and McCutcheon's wedding that year was a small, intimate ceremony, but a meaningful and beautiful one. Their friends and family filled their luscious and green garden on an unusually hot and sunny summer day in Arcata. A minister performed the ceremony. McCutcheon's son played the steel drums. After they exchanged vows, friends and family held hands in a large circle and sang a song. "How can anyone think you're less than beautiful, how can anyone think you're less than whole."
"I can't sing that song without crying," McCutcheon said last Saturday afternoon. Her sparkling blue eyes teared up as she leaned across the dining room table towards her partner of 24 years. Glossy photos of the last ceremony were scattered loosely about. A professional family photo hung on the wall, taken at Montgomery Wards in the 1980s when they first got together.
"The photographer was really freaked out," said Rau. "He didn't know where to put everyone."
Outside the window was the same yard where their beautiful wedding was held nearly 10 years ago. In three short days, Rau and McCutcheon would exchange vows once again and make history once again — they'd be one of the first same-sex couples to be legally married in Eureka. Their appointment was at 3:00 p.m.
This wedding would be less than a white wedding dress event, they said. They already got married 10 years ago, they said. This time was just for formality and to make history, to make a statement. "We don't need an elaborate wedding," McCutcheon said. "We loved our first one so much." They discussed thrift stores to buy wedding apparel from. They invited a small group of friends and family, along with the community, to a healing ceremony at the Unitarian Church after the official courthouse wedding. Some of these people included McCutcheon's ex-husband, his new wife and her 91-year-old ex-mother-in-law. They all accepted the invitation and drove over two hours to be there.
But one family member did not accept the invitation. Pat said her religious brother, who "basically lambasted her" for years, never quite accepted that she was gay. But she invited him to the wedding anyway. He couldn't make it, but she said they had a "very nice conversation" last Friday night. She said she realized after time that he was trying to convert her, but that she was trying to convert him too.
Times have changed a lot since Rau and McCutcheon first got together in March 1984 in Del Norte County. They were both married to men before, and both had children with those men. They were each other's first lesbian partners. They meshed their families, minus the husbands, to live with each other. Their relationship was not immediately accepted.
The worst memory of the past, they said, was the treatment their kids received after the other kids found out they had gay parents. "I feel very, very bad that our kids had to go through the discrimination and terrible things they did," said McCutcheon. "But in the end they all turned out as wonderful people."
Times have changed, but maybe not that much. In 2000, the people of California voted on whether a marriage should remain between a man and a woman. The majority said that it should. Because of that, same-sex couples that wanted to marry were denied 1,138 civil rights that a man and a woman would receive as married partners, including tax breaks, joint medical benefits and visitation rights in the hospital. Domestic partnerships such as Rau's and McCutcheon's did not count.
The California Supreme Court took a monumental step toward social equality this May when it struck down the longstanding ballot initiative, called Proposition 22, and declared the ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional.
Although McCutcheon and Rau were "just elated" to be married on Tuesday, it is just the beginning of a treacherous challenge for them and thousands of other couples over the next few months. There is a strong divide in our country. There are those who condone same-sex marriages and those who, overwhelmingly, do not.
"The opposition is loading the war chest," said McCutcheon. "It's sobering to think about that."
Gay marriage opponents placed another initiative — identical to Proposition 22 in intent, but recast as an amendment to the state Constitution — onto the ballot this November. It's renamed the "The California Marriage Amendment," and if passed, it will effectively overturn the decision made by the California Supreme Court earlier this year. It only needed a little over 600,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot, but over one million California voters signed the petition. Come November, if a simple majority (51 percent) votes for it, despite the California Supreme Court's ruling, the same-sex marriages that happen in the weeks and months to come will become void. A recent Field Poll showed that 49 percent planned on voting for the act, a slim 2 percent away from destroying legal marriages like Rau's and McCutcheon's.
"If it passes, I'd be devastated," said McCutcheon."I'd feel let down once again. It would change how I feel about our country."