Gay couples find one marriage barrier gone, others still rigid

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010

Dominic Russoli retired in 2001 from an Air Force squadron that flies national leaders, and he is now a paralegal at the Justice Department. He had been in the military for 22 years, almost as long as he has been with his partner, Rolf Preisendorfer.

Julie Garnier is a veterinarian at the Food and Drug Administration. Her mother and father were married for 63 years, and she has been with Charlene Evans for nine. This week, they can pick up the marriage license they've applied for at D.C. Superior Court. "We get married and we stay married in my family," Garnier said.

Decisions on same-sex marriage in the District and Maryland are radiating deeply into the life of Washington, a place where people's day jobs often give them responsibility for important parts of the nation's government. But beyond their jubilation last week, gay couples who will begin to marry in the District in coming days will still face a federal law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman -- and families that sometimes do the same.

After years of inquiring about a girlfriend, Jose Dominguez's dad finally stopped. "My father . . . he's not very open to the whole gay/lesbian sexuality," said Dominguez, who works as a hotel manager in Arlington County. "He's the person who won't ask. Don't ask, don't tell." This month, Dominguez is set to marry Mike Thomas, a researcher at the Department of Veterans Affairs. They won't share numerous federal benefits offered to married couples, they will still have to file federal taxes separately and their marriage won't be recognized outside a handful of states.

For Russoli and the man who will soon be his husband, the inability to share the full military benefits Russoli earned is something they've accepted for now. But it's the tiniest of indignities that have stung the worst. To easily drive onto Andrews Air Force Base or to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda to pick up a prescription, Russoli needed to have his name on the car's title. In Maryland, it's a matter of filling out a form and paying a $50 fee if you're married. Their solution: His partner sold the car to both of them after getting it inspected, and they had to pay more than $180.

They're hoping that their marriage in the District, and a recent declaration by Maryland's attorney general that the state should recognize out-of-state marriages, will begin to end such issues.

Change in increments

"The 1964 civil rights legislation didn't start in one place. It didn't start as a movement with [President Lyndon B.] Johnson saying, 'Yeah, we want to do this,' " Russoli said. The boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., began in 1955. California's Supreme Court struck down a ban on interracial marriage in 1948, 18 years before the U.S. Supreme Court did the same. "That all changed in increments," he said.

Leonard Hirsch, a policy staffer at the Smithsonian Institution, said a symbolic shift has already occurred. While President Richard M. Nixon caught himself on tape using epithets and ripping into homosexuality, President Obama and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have called for gays to be allowed to serve openly in the military. Still, Obama said during his campaign that he opposed same-sex marriage.

The progress Hirsch perceives has come with subtle signals -- some well meaning, and even from within his extended family -- that have been painful to hear. Hirsch, who heads a group of gay federal workers, and his husband, Kristian Fauchald, have ties to California and were wed in Palm Springs in 2008. That was shortly before voters banned same-sex marriage by passing a measure known as Proposition 8. During a dinner after the wedding, Hirsch's aunt spoke up. "Welcome to the family," she said to Fauchald. "He had been going to family events for 25 years," Hirsch said.

Garnier, the FDA veterinarian, lives in the District's Brightwood neighborhood and waited in the hallway of the Superior Court on Wednesday, the first day the city was accepting applications from families like hers. She and Evans, who works in financial crimes enforcement at the Treasury Department, have a 3-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son. "We just want to show them the power of commitment. Their family is just as legitimate as any other," Garnier said.

Garnier's five brothers and sisters have long been married, and she's planning a big wedding next year. She'd like her brother, a minister, to preside. "I never imagined a small ceremony," Garnier said. When Proposition 8 passed, some of her siblings couldn't understand her dismay. "We don't get it," they told her. At least one older sister voted for it, and she thinks another did as well. "They were like, 'It doesn't hurt you,' " Garnier said. "Yes, it does!"

Russoli's future father-in-law has been loving and generous toward the couple, but he has struggled as well, Russoli said. Russoli and Preisendorfer turned 50 last year, and they celebrated their 25th anniversary together in October. "It's been sort of painful to watch, to see him to try to find the line between his conservative values and loving his son and his grandson," Russoli said. The two of them, 9-year-old son Cyrus and the in-laws will set sail for a nine-day Caribbean cruise at the end of the month. The marriage will be a few days after they return.

Opinions evolve

The qualms can cross cliched lines of opposition. When Russoli went back to visit his squadron after he retired and came out, he chatted with old friends, but there was one silent rebuke. "I started talking about my partner and our child and a guy . . . left the circle of friends. I don't think a lot of people caught it," he said. But some of their gay friends have also been cool to their suburban life in Rockville, their adoption and now their marriage. "Why do you want to do that? You're buying into the white-picket-fence straight life," they told him.

History and tradition can also evolve unexpectedly. Jeremy Ames and Taka Ariga had a commitment ceremony on a boat in the Potomac River on Aug. 8, 2008, or 8/8/08, an auspicious day that resonated with the Chinese side of Ariga's family because it suggested that riches would come. Ames is an Environmental Protection Agency staffer, and Ariga helps ferret out potential waste in Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction accounts as a forensic accounting consultant. They live in Northeast Washington and will marry March 18.

Ames had been worried that his grandmother, nearly 90 then, would balk at going to the earlier family ceremony, and he offered to pay. Of course she'd be there, she told him, and she'd pay her own way, thank you. Ariga's parents -- his mother is Chinese, his father Japanese -- fell in love and married despite the disapproval of their families. After Ariga introduced Ames to them, his mother's early impression was: "He's white. He won't like anything you cook." She now refers proudly to Ariga, his brother and Ames as her three sons.

Not long after Dominguez and Thomas met in Milwaukee eight years ago over burgers and salad, Dominguez proposed. They printed out their own homemade marriage certificate. " 'I, Mike, take Jose,' and 'I, Jose, take Mike,' and all that. We both signed it," Dominguez said. "It was a nice, little, very personal, intimate ceremony. So this one now is big."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company