For gay couples in D.C., political reality meets real life

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; B01

It took eight years to travel from a poetry night at the Black Cat to the point when Tina Hodges and Rebecca Phares began dressing up their home-office walls with stickers of little cartoon caterpillars wearing red and black berets. Now, there are two big steps to come.

They plan to walk into D.C Superior Court on Wednesday to apply for a marriage license in the city where they were born, joining the first group of gay and lesbian couples to exercise that legal right as the nation's capital puts its civic and symbolic weight behind same-sex marriage. And on July 4, they are expecting a baby boy.

These are days of great political significance and history following years of debate and public struggle, but they are also simply two more days of love for two women who keep staring at each other and smiling as they remember what brought them here. As couples consider this first chance in the District to get licenses and, after a three-day waiting period, get married, many are trying to figure out how official recognition might fit with their years or decades of personal commitment.

Many are focused on the ritual and ceremony, or rushing relatives into town, or the legal fine print. Some are thinking about how to make it in and out of the courthouse with dignity but without drawing klieg lights to their careers. Others are balking, pulled between the pride they might feel and frustration with their employers in the federal government who, by law, would continue to withhold crucial federal health and retirement benefits to their partners even after they were legally married.

Or, as is the case of Northeast residents Hodges and Phares, they are thinking about their family and future and how much fun the next few days will be.

As with many Washington love stories, theirs began at a biweekly coalition meeting of a nonprofit working group. The meeting was about Mexico. Tina was 22. She had just come out three years before and was in her first job. Rebecca was 4 1/2 years older and "was presenting at the meeting, and so smart," said Tina, who now works in the policy office of the Federal Transit Administration.

"It didn't even occur to me that she might be gay until I ran into her at a women's spoken word event at the Black Cat. . . . And I was like, 'Oh, my God. That beautiful woman that I work with is gay!' "

Tina was giddy -- "googly-eyed," she says -- and nervous, but went over anyway. She didn't really know what to say, and it didn't really matter.

"I could tell from the way she looked at me," Rebecca recalled, "that . . . "

"I'm pretty transparent," Tina said.

" . . . that she was interested."

'The right person'

Tina was 20 minutes late to their first real date. She had been training for a sprint triathlon. She drank a couple of bottles of Gatorade, grabbed a shower, threw on some shorts and made her way to Eastern Market. Her opening line: "Hi, I have to run to the bathroom."

It got better from there.

Tina grew up knowing she would wed. "It was just a matter of finding the right person," she said. Her mom, Virginia Azurée, a science teacher in Montgomery County, is gay, and Tina was in the wedding in 1993.

"We knew full well nobody else believed it. But we did. Isn't that all that counts?" Azurée said.

They served frozen lasagna and homemade salad.

("So the conservatives don't freak out, I have two straight sisters," Tina said. )

Rebecca and Tina moved in together after six months. Rebecca worked for Catholic and Lutheran organizations, and they began attending Takoma Park Presbyterian. Tina proposed. For their church wedding the next summer, they asked the pastor to stretch the ceremony past 40 minutes because they wanted to savor it. They had catered chicken filled with crab, and 300 red and yellow roses from Ecuador. Almost everyone made it, with the exception of a few of Rebecca's Catholic aunts and uncles, who boycotted.

Divergent paths

There are those in Washington, as elsewhere, who cite religion or morality to explain their opposition to same-sex marriage. But some in the District's gay community say they are slow to embrace the institution because they have yet to be given equal rights nationally.

"We're still second-class," said Louis Lance, 51, a legal worker who has been with his partner, a retired federal employee, for seven years. They're not interested in the District's stamp of approval until they get full federal benefits. "I have unconditional love now," Lance said.

For Tina and Rebecca, it was an easier choice. After a year of trying, fertility treatments worked and Rebecca is pregnant.

"Marriage changes things. It just changes the tenor of any discussion or argument," Rebecca said. Now a promise before church and family will be made under the law. "They kind of feed back and forth, I think," Tina said. "As more people are more out, you get more societal recognition, and then you start getting more legal rights, and when you start getting more legal rights, people start seeing it as more normal."

There's an easy flow to the arrangements this time. Instead of a year of planning, they're e-mailing with a Unitarian church that has arranged music and a pastor for a series of weddings Tuesday.

Tina's mom and her wife will be there. "It's hooray, it's wow, it's fantastic. Yeah, the world may become a better place," Azurée said. She lives in Kensington and doesn't plan on getting married in the District because of legal uncertainties.

The closet in Tina and Rebecca's nursery is beginning to bulge. They picked out what they call "the man suit" at Lord & Taylor last week for $14: red-white-and-blue plaid shirt, red sweater and navy corduroys. Occasionally, they'll dress the baby "kind of preppy, 'cause he's going to be a smart guy," Tina said.

There's a frog on the wall, a rainbow Rebecca drew on her school bus at age 8, and pictures of generations of family babies, including one of Rebecca with a Raggedy Ann doll. "She's the most beautiful baby I've ever seen," Tina said. "I hope our baby looks just like that."

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