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What the Respect for Marriage Act means for LGBTQ, interracial families

Some met in law school; others grew up together. They have started families, adopted children and survived cancer.

On Tuesday, President Biden signed landmark legislation that will protect their marriages. The Respect for Marriage Act grants federal protection to same-sex and interracial couples, requiring that people be considered married in any state as long as the marriage is valid in the state where it was performed.

The issue became a legislative priority after the Supreme Court in June ended the constitutional right to abortion after nearly 50 years, at which time Justice Clarence Thomas said the court should also reexamine cases that set precedent on LGBT rights.

Here are the stories of 13 couples whose marriages will be protected under the new law.

Paul Hill and Bradley Akin, California

They thought the only anniversary they’d get to celebrate was the day they met: May 6, 1995. But before long, Paul, 69, and Bradley, 62, would get married twice in California. In 2004, the two got married when San Francisco’s mayor at the time, Gavin Newsom, began allowing it — until a state Supreme Court decision voided their marriage and thousands of others. Years went by.

“I had always been told [marriage] was something I couldn’t have. I didn’t know how much I wanted it until there was a possibility I could have it,” Paul said.

In 2008, when the door to same-sex marriage once again opened in the state, they got married — and then Proposition 8 went into effect, closing that door. But the two joined a lawsuit arguing that couples who had already gotten married should be able to remain so. They won.

“I married him twice and I would marry him again if I have to, but I hope don’t ever have to,” Paul said with a chuckle.

Katie and Amber Marino, West Virginia

Katie and Amber grew up together and knew each other through dance classes and soccer. They later reconnected in college and married in 2016.

Amber explained that she panicked when they heard discussions that a Supreme Court decision protecting same-sex marriage might be challenged. At the time, she was pregnant and Katie was finishing veterinary school. “What the heck happens when we have this kid? What if something happens to me? What if something happens to him?” Amber said.

Katie was also worried. “I’m still not a legal parent to him. I’ll have to adopt him in six months,” she said. Katie said she is not concerned that Amber would try to challenge her parental rights. “But in the back of my mind I’m thinking, if we weren’t okay, and she has the child, and we broke up or got divorced, I wouldn’t have any parental rights,” Katie said.

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Denzel Mendoza and Aurora Dachen Mendoza, Oregon

For Denzel, 27, and Aurora, 24, in Portland, Ore., the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act brings long-overdue legitimacy to their interracial marriage.

A Filipino enrollee in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Denzel said he has often been viewed as a threat in the predominantly White neighborhoods he has lived in and must “keep the fire in the house lit at all times” for his wife, who is White, and their 20-month-old son, Ulan.

While the law won’t immediately fix racial inequality in the United States, the Mendozas hope it’s the “positive growth” needed to protect Ulan and future generations from mistreatment in interracial or LGBTQ marriages.

Michael and Raquel McCleod, West Virginia

Michael and Raquel will soon celebrate their 10-year anniversary. Their interracial marriage — Mike is Black and Raquel is White — has always been a challenge.

“If you’re in a rural area where there aren’t as many interracial couples, it gets tough, on both parts,” Mike said. “We witnessed that in our own family.”

Raquel added, “We lost some family members when we began dating. We were a big large family and kind of shrunk down a little bit. The bill should be a safeguard for the future.”

They have three adopted children: Tresz McLeod, Francesca Malinkey and Rynder McLeod in Wheeling, W.Va. Francesca remembers the chilly reception Mike received from her extended family. “I was around when our family backed away, and I didn’t understand what was happening,” she said.

It was up to Raquel to explain. “Francesca and I used to go on family vacations with 30 family members. When Mike and I started dating, we were uninvited,” she said. “She thought back then it was because family didn’t like her. She didn’t understand that race had become a factor. At 9, I hated to explain that people judge based on the color of your skin.”

Any discussions about challenging the legality of interracial marriage feel disrespectful, she said. “I feel like we are taking steps back instead of forward.”

Carole Johnson and Joan Lester, California

Carole, 75, and Joan, 82, didn’t come out at an early age. By the time they found each other, Joan had two previous marriages to men under her belt, and Carole — who had dated men earlier in life — was resistant to the “whole concept of marriage,” she said. Joan’s first two marriages were to Black men, and her first was before the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision struck down laws banning interracial marriage.

“I was very grateful to the Supreme Court both times ... for legalizing both of my marriages,” Lester said.

Carole eventually acquiesced to marriage, because she loved Joan and because she could see that family members who were resistant to the idea seemed to have a change of heart when they saw them together.

They were thrilled to hear marriages like theirs would be further protected with the Respect for Marriage Act.

“I really do believe that love prevails,” Carole said.

Comic: What the right to same-sex marriage means — and what life would look like without it

Randy and Meredith Shah, West Virginia

“We talked about what it would mean for us” if interracial marriage were ever challenged, Meredith said. “We could always go to Canada, where Randy is from. But this is our home, and this is where we want to be.”

Now that the Respect for Marriage bill has been signed, she said, “We don’t want to have to flee to be who we are. It’s exciting that this can be a nonissue.”

They live in a predominantly White area, she said. “When we adopted Marcus, my grandmother, who has been one of our biggest supporters, held him and cried tears of joy and happiness realizing she had never held an African American child before,” Meredith said. “Thinking of teenager me, I would have never pictured that. There she was sitting in a rocking chair, giving him his bottles and kissing him. They’re still best friends. He loves Baba.”

AR Kittleson-Springer and Olie Kittleson-Springer, Oregon

The Respect for Marriage Act is bittersweet for AR, 35, and Olie, 32. They’re somewhat relieved by the extra security it provides in the event Obergefell v. Hodges, the historic 2015 Supreme Court decision requiring that same-sex couples be allowed to marry no matter where they live, is ever challenged.

After the fall of Roe v. Wade in June, the couple began to worry and rushed to be legally married ahead of their planned wedding ceremony.

Although the Respect for Marriage Act offers more protection as a White, cisgender married couple living in LGBTQ-friendly Portland, Ore., many other queer people might not be as safe, AR said. They’re still worried for their queer Black and trans friends in states that aren’t as accepting of same-sex marriage, and they’re hoping future legislation can go beyond the “two-tiered system” now in place.

MaryLu and Russell Hutchins, West Virginia

MaryLu and Russell have been married 43 years. Russell can still recall the exact date of the first time they went out in high school in Bellaire, Ohio.

“In the political climate we are in right now, people who are living in their full humanity need to step up and make sure that individual human rights are protected,” MaryLu said.

“The people that will support you because they love you don’t necessarily see the impact of the larger political climate and how that personally affects your humanity. It’s been hard,” said their daughter, Lauren. “I’m just bracing for the next time.”

Marissa Gorena and Zaira Arroyo, Texas

Marissa, 26, and Zaira, 26, were married in September — four years after meeting on Tinder in 2018. Up against a likely court ruling ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the couple rushed to get married to protect Zaira, a DACA recipient. The Houston couple is now saving money to initiate the green card process, they said.

“It’s kind of like two Supreme Court decisions are weighing on our entire life,” said Gorena, referring to decisions that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015 and blocked an attempt to end DACA in 2020.

But the Respect for Marriage Act has instilled relief in Marissa and Zaira, just as the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage did. “I got just as teary,” Marissa said.

“For now, our marriage is still valid,” Zaira said.

Jonathan Lee and Mark Quady, California

Jonathan recalls telling friends years ago that same-sex marriage would never be legal in the United States. Now he’s happy he was wrong.

“It proved to me that American society is much more progressive than we give it credit for,” he said. But the new law’s provision allowing religious institutions the right to refuse LGBTQ people service dampens his excitement.

“We’re not 100 percent overjoyed about it — it’s a step above ambivalence,” he said.

Jonathan is Chinese-Vietnamese-Cambodian American and his husband, Mark, is White. They have a 9-year-old son, who is Latino. They adopted him as a newborn — his birth mother picked them.

“We’re just normal people trying to do our best, trying to raise our son to be a good, loving human being, to have empathy for others, and we just want the society in which he lives to accept him and everyone else,” Jonathan said. “And I think it’s such an easy request. But yet so many seem to allow religious dogma to make that request hard when it should be so simple.”

Jesse Gandee and Vishakha Maskey, West Virginia

“After Roe v. Wade was overturned, I talked to my family about it. I had a daily discussion about the fact that our marriage could be at risk,” Jesse said of his union to Maskey. “Five years ago I thought certain things were sacred and would never occur.”

Juniper, one of their children, said she had more confidence. “I had faith that people would do something about it and was less concerned than my dad,” Juniper said.

Joshlynn Hilburn and Amber Reyes, Texas

In 2018, Joshlynn and Amber — who were both living in Austin at the time — matched on Her, a dating app for queer women, nonbinary people and trans people. Four years later, now both 24, they got engaged and have plans to get married in 2024.

The Houston couple is grateful for the Respect for Marriage Act, but also recognizes that in a state like Texas, which has a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that is currently not enforceable, “the law doesn’t always dictate what social rules are and how people act,” Joshlynn said. She said she and Amber fear that even with the law’s passage, a large share of Texans “will personally not recognize our marriage and not respect our marriage.”

But Joshlynn said she is grateful that the law allows her and Amber to get married “on our own timelines” with the confidence that their union will still be legally recognized in the future. “That’s really all we want,” she said. “To just be the same as everyone else and not have to worry … if legally we’ll be able to get married.”

Peter Junkersfeld and David Miller, West Virginia

“We were together two days after meeting. It was that quick,” Peter recalled of meeting David while working in D.C. more than 40 years ago.

They were one of the first couples in Wheeling, W.Va., to be married after the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal. At the time, Peter had Stage 4 lung cancer, which had metastasized to his brain.

“It frightened me when I heard talk of overturning that ruling,” said Peter.

“I assumed it would be overturned unless somebody did something about it,” said David, who was recently appointed to the city’s Human Rights Commission. “My aunt was a lesbian. Years ago Peter and I were working in the garden, and my grandmother said to us, ‘You are special people, you’re just like your aunt and her partner, don’t let anyone ever take that away from you.’”

correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly said Jonathan Lee is Vietnamese American. He is Chinese-Vietnamese-Cambodian American. This article has been corrected.

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