Posted: May 8, 2013
FINALLY, WEDDING BELLS RING FOR ALL
By Celia Cohen
Civil unions were just not quite good enough.
Only two years ago, civil unions seemed like the Holy Grail for gay Delawareans.
Only two years ago, Jack Markell held up the civil union bill, which he had just signed into law as the Democratic governor, high, high, high above his head, as high as he could reach, and a giddy crowd of 600 mostly gay people, gathered for the signing ceremony at The Queen in Wilmington, nearly swooned to think this day had come.
What nobody knew at the time was there would be an aftertaste, like a champagne that was imperfect after all.
Civil unions were good. Just not quite good enough.
Separate was not equal. Separate can never be equal. The same water can flow through two drinking fountains, but if one says whites only, the water in the other cannot quench thirst.
There had to be marriage, and now there is.
Two weeks to the day after the House of Representatives passed the gay marriage bill by 23-18, the Senate voted for it by 12-9, and Markell did not let even a half-hour elapse before he made this embrace of same-sex nuptials the law of the state as of July 1.
"Many up and down our state have waited years and decades for this day to come. I do not intend to make you wait a day longer," Markell quipped.
The Senate debate on Tuesday was a draining, wrenching three-hour-long affair that invoked God, religion, sin, history, biology, rights of conscience, civil rights, dignity, justice and equality, virtually the entire human experience.
"Today we are dealing with tomorrow," said Bob Marshall, a Democratic senator who voted "yes."
There was this from Bob Venables, a Democratic senator who was a "no" vote: "Nature itself, the very anatomy, would lead that a man should not be married to a man."
And this from Bryan Townsend, a Democratic senator who was a "yes" vote: "We should know now, by law and in our hearts, that a separate but equal system is inherently unequal."
Still, the moment that shall live in history belonged to Karen Peterson, a Democratic senator. Not that there are any secrets in Delaware, but this was the time Peterson chose to turn her decades of commitment with Vikki Bandy into an unchained affirmation.
"My partner Vikki and I have been together for 24 years. We exchanged vows in the presence of a minister 23 years ago, and last year we entered into a civil union," Peterson said.
"Neither of us chose to be gay, any more than heterosexual people chose to be straight. Like you, I didn't wake up one morning and say, today's the day, got to decide whether to want to be straight or gay. Nobody gets to make those decisions, any more than we decide whether to be tall or short, black or white.
"We are what God made us. We don't need to be fixed, we're not broken, and we, like all other Americans, should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Marriage makes a difference.
"Marriage is what everybody else gets. This is what kids dream about. Marriage is what two people who love each other do," said Lisa Goodman, the president of Equality Delaware, the advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Delawareans.
Nobody could have experienced the difference more than Erik Schramm, a political consultant to Equality Delaware. Originally from New York, he went there last year to marry Jonathan Raser, a neurologist at Christiana Hospital, as they became Erik and Jonathan Raser-Schramm, and then they drove back to Newark, where they live.
"The feeling when we drove across the state line, we were suddenly second-class citizens," Erik Raser-Schramm said.
Here is what the new law meant to Dave Jones, a Republican political operative, who said, "It felt like how I've been treated my entire life, all the hiding, all the fear, society decided to atone for."
When Markell signed the bill, he did it on the landing of the grand stairway in the center of Legislative Hall in Dover, in the same place where Ruth Ann Minner, as the Democratic governor 10 years ago in May 2003, stood to put the power of the office behind a gay rights bill that did not have a ghost of chance of passing back then.
Gay rights had to wait until 2009, civil unions until 2011, and now here was the marriage bill, signed as Markell was surrounded by scores of delirious, dream-come-true gay people.
Packed among the crowd were also Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor, and an array of legislators, most notably Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem, Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker, Melanie George Smith, the Democratic representative who was the prime sponsor, and Dave Sokola, the Democratic senator who floor-managed the bill.
History was in the air. So was a sense of common sacrifice, of marvel that a cause so many people expected could not be won in their lifetimes was indeed won. It was Shakespearean, so with apologies to The Bard for taking liberties with his verse:
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few,
We band of sisters and of brothers . . .
And folk shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their honor cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon this famous day.