Last week I received a Facebook message from a woman who lives in Arkansas. Her story touched me deeply and showed me how important it is for us to continue to work towards equality, not only on the coasts, but in the heartland and the South too.
My wife and I, along with a few other couples, wanted to get some advice. My wife and I went to Iowa and got married in September of 2010. I have three children from a previous marriage to a man. My divorce decree states that I cannot have anyone stay the night in the home who I am romantically involved with unless we are married. Because we live in Arkansas and Arkansas does not recognize our marriage, my wife cannot stay the night in our home when the kids are home. For a long time we rented 2 places, but because of financial reasons (we have been in the middle of a custody case over the kids for a year and a half. We have spent $20,000 so far) can no longer do that. She now spends the night with my parents or grandparents on the nights when the kids are home. At this point, we are in the middle of the appeal process for custody of my kids and I am a little scared about making it too public.
Imagine what it would be like to be legally married and yet have to ask your spouse to leave the home because your marriage isn't recognized in the state you live in, thus making it a crime. It made me think of the 2003 Lawrence V. Texas Decision
and how these custody cases are just another way to criminalize same-sex relationships.
As if her situation wasn't heart-wrenching enough, she shared some experiences of others couples she knew that were also hoping I had some advice for them. She said:
I know that one of the other couples were living together and she was taken to court by her ex husband over it (in this case an unmarried female partner staying in the house when the kids were visiting) and the judge ordered her girlfriend out of the home. They now rent the house across the street from the one they are buying, so when the kids are home at night, she goes across the street to sleep. Another one of the couples lost the kids to the ex husband because of their relationship and the fact they were living together. The ex husband moved the kids to Texas. They are now in the middle of a custody case trying to get the kids back. They are engaged, but not married yet.
I racked my brain for advice for these couples. I asked her if they could approach one of the big LGBT legal groups, but she said that they didn't have anything substantial they could do to help.
This is a seemingly impossible situation, yet I know that even the strongest wall can be dismantled one brick at a time. I know to "win this case" a change of heart and consciousness is needed. That means first letting people know this situation exists, that there are real people out there who are suffering because of antiquated notions of family and the allowance of discrimination to exist. So I ask you to begin sharing these women's stories with the people you know. To change a situation we must first shine light on it.
Secondly, if you are someone who prays or believes in the power of thought, please send positive thoughts and prayers for these couples, please send positive thoughts and prayers for the judges to open their hearts, and please send positive thoughts and prayers that the people of Arkansas will recognize these couples' marriages as fulfilling the custody requirements.
Another thing you can do is to raise your voice to repeal the Denial of Marriage Act (DOMA 1996) which keeps same-sex couples' marriages from being legally recognized in states that have banned same-sex marriage. It is one thing not to allow same-sex couples the right to marry in their state, (which of course I believe is government-sanctioned discrimination), but quite another to deny legally married couples the rights of marriage in their home state.
There are many things you can do to begin working to dismantle DOMA. I have a whole list of things in my book Love Warriors, including a sample letter you can send to all of your senators and congressional leaders.
We must also speak out for the injustices against others on their behalf. I feel very grateful that I can speak out for others. When I asked her if she'd be willing to talk to the media about her situation, this woman wrote, "I do not want to risk anything while I am trying to get my kids back." She agreed that once the custody battle was over she would be more comfortable being an open advocate. I understand her fear.
So, I invite us all to speak out on behalf of those who are silenced because of the threat of losing their children. Please let people know about this injustice, please send your positive thoughts and prayers out for these families, and please get involved and help repeal DOMA through letter writing, or the many other ways I outline in Love Warriors, and through your own creative efforts to occupy equality and an open heart and create a world that works for everyone.