D.C. gay couple caps a momentous first by tying the knot

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; 1:05 PM

They met in grad school. Angelisa Young and Sinjoyla Townsend were assigned to debate opposing sides of the same issue in a constitutional law class at the University of the District of Columbia, and both were so nerdily over-prepared -- typical Washingtonians -- that the other member of their group decided the debate was a draw.

Young felt the attraction first. Throughout the semester, she found excuses to pass Townsend fliers for the political activist group that she belonged to on campus; she was devastated when she later found those fliers left behind after class. She would go to watch Townsend shoot hoops, even though she hates sports.

"She would be reading books at the game," Townsend teases. Young would come into the gymnasium in her girlie high-heeled boots, in clothes completely ridiculous for a basketball court.

Young protests: "I was trying!"

One night Townsend called Young, having recently realized what Young already knew. In the middle of a conversation about schoolwork, she said tenderly, "Every sunflower needs rain to grow. Would you be my rain?"

Young, who had long since given up on Townsend understanding the significance of her appearances at the gym, was confused. She thought, "This has nothing to do with the case" they had been discussing.

That was 12 years ago. They have tattoos on their wrists now: Townsend's says "Sunflower" and Young's says "Rain."

On Tuesday, they got wedding bands as well. In a morning ceremony at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters, in an airy room filled with family, friends, yellow roses and cello music, the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license in the District of Columbia, was also among the first to be married.

"When I think I can't love you, respect you and cherish you any more, tomorrow comes," Young said, in vows she had written herself.

"When you call I will respond," Townsend replied. "You are my rock, my life, my love."

After the ceremony, they emerged from the building, faces stretched into delighted grins. "I don't have a political platform," Townsend told a gathering crowd. "I just wanted to marry Angel."

Everyday people

Young and Townsend don't know why anyone would want to read about them. They're boring people -- a community outreach coordinator (Young) and a D.C. government supervisor (Townsend). They read, they shoot pool, they go dancing -- less now, with Townsend's bad knee -- they walk the dog. Townsend, 41, paints and has filled their Southeast Washington home with art. Young, 47, is a bubbly Lucille Ball type. They complement each other. What more is there to say?

But maybe Mildred and Richard Loving, the Virginia couple whose marriage ultimately ended anti-miscegenation laws in 1967, also thought they were boring. There are people who seek out fame, and there are people whose boring lives get sewed up into the fabric of history and become accidental celebrities. Maybe, someone suggests to Young and Townsend, their lives will become part of historical record. Forty years from now people will want to know who they were.

The women didn't expect the avalanche of attention that the week brought -- the phone calls, the e-mails, the international press, the sudden dissolution of privacy. Young was recognized in the shopping mall the other day by a man who had seen her on television when she emerged from the courthouse.

"You know what they say about everyone getting 15 minutes of fame?" Young says. "I can't wait for Minute 16."

She was raised in Washington by her mother, a nurse, who tearfully asked "What have I done wrong?" when Young told her, as an adult, that she was a lesbian. Another relative told her, "Baby, watch out. They hurt people like you." Her family supports her now.

Townsend's grandmother in Ohio, where she'd grown up, tagged her with derogatory slurs when she learned Townsend was gay -- she'd begun her coming out process after her brother peeked in her diary and read that she was struggling with her sexuality. Townsend now thinks her grandmother was trying to steel her for the way she might be treated. "She didn't want me to get hurt," Townsend says. Townsend's grandmother wanted her grandchildren to be self-sufficient and encouraged her grandchildren to always go after what they wanted.

After a few years of dating Young, she knew that what she wanted was Angelisa. "I'm very analytical, but she showed me how to see the emotional side of things. And she was patient with me," Townsend says. She had been in serious relationships before, but she was used to running when things got hard. "Angelisa showed me what it means to commit to another person."

Early in their relationship, when both women were broke and a date might consist of walking around the waterfront or the monuments, Townsend gave her a piece of kite string as a present. "I told her that things wouldn't always be easy," she says, "but that we would hold on."

At the time, Young was recovering from a failed marriage to a man -- a union that had produced two children -- and was often pensive. When the couple moved in together, Townsend bought books on stepparenting. She and the children decided Young was too uptight and invented a game called "Make Me Laugh," with the sole goal of getting Young to crack a smile. Now, Young says with mock chagrin, the children confide in Townsend more than their biological mom.

Five years ago, when same-sex marriage in Washington still seemed hopelessly far away, they decided not to wait for the law. They had a commitment ceremony in Maryland with all the traditional trimmings. Years passed, and different states slowly began to repeal legislation outlawing same sex marriage. First Massachusetts, then Connecticut, then Iowa.

"Every time a state would pass, I would cry," Young says, wondering when her home town would follow.

A harried week

On a recent evening a few days before the ceremony, the couple sat inside their modern kitchen and watched as a costume-designer friend sketched out the dress he was making her the wedding. Their vows might represent a huge cultural moment to everyone else, but to Young and Townsend it was their wedding. The chaos of the week meant they had no time to plan, and they'd requested only two days off work -- the day they got their license and the day of their ceremony. The dress would be champagne-colored, the friend explained, with a lace overlay and a full skirt, very 1950s. Young squealed her approval; Townsend, who would wear a cream-colored suit, laughed at Young's exuberance.

The couple had previously been approached by the HRC, which was looking for pairs willing to be among the first 10 to go to the courthouse, and they had agreed. But when they got to the courthouse last Wednesday morning, after a giddily sleepless night, it was still dim outside and a clerk informed them that they were actually the very first couple to arrive.

They were excited, "But just like I'm excited when I'm first in line to get french fries at the cafeteria," Townsend says. They could have been 37th in line; what mattered is that they were there.

It wasn't until after the paperwork had been filed and they emerged from courthouse in daylight that they saw the crowds. A gantlet of reporters asking them for comment, supporters cheering encouragement, protesters waving signs. Suddenly they began to understand the difference between first and First, to realize that they would be looked at for what they represented as much as for who they were. Their two adult children support what they're doing, but fear the repercussions of the publicity: On the phone, Young's daughter pleaded with her, "Mommy, please be safe."

They have friends who are congratulatory, and acquaintances who are not -- a man Young sees almost every day, who normally greets her with a jokingly flirtatious "Hey, baby!" was conspicuously silent when she saw him the day after the courthouse. She wanted to tell him, "Believe it or not, the person you said 'Hey, baby' to on March 2 was also a lesbian with a partner."

Young's voice briefly quavers. After the years of waiting for this moment, she says softly, "I don't want to let anybody down."

"What are you talking about?" Townsend looks at her, concerned. "Just live your life." Whatever anyone else thinks is their business; she and Young need to only focus on each other.

Young thinks that it's more complicated than that. "This is for everyone who wants to get married," she says. She used to run a support group for black LGBT women and would end sessions by inviting everyone to submit questions for the group to talk about. One day she unfolded a slip of paper that read, "I feel like committing suicide, but I'm scared." To this day, whenever Young is out, she looks for the writer of that note. She has never seen her.

"I am doing this because I love my partner and we deserve to be married," Young says. "But I am also doing this because the first one is always the hardest."

Someone has to pave the way. She still may run into that woman, and if she does she wants to be able say, "Now, sweetheart. Now you can come through the door."

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