I knew Ijpe and I had made a unique connection when we met 16 years ago. We were working as camp counselors that summer, and we immediately knew that we had found something special in one another. After we left camp, we maintained a close friendship for a decade before acknowledging what we had known all along — we couldn’t be apart. In 2011, while Ijpe was on a three-day pass from his mobilization training in Fort Dix, New Jersey, we were married — dressed in khakis and white T-shirts — in a New York ceremony that wasn’t fancy, but was perfectly us.
We never could have predicted that our marriage and commitment to one another would lead us here: plaintiffs in the Tennessee marriage case that is one of the biggest U.S. Supreme Court cases in history, with millions of people looking to us as the Court prepares to hear arguments on April 28 that could result in a nationwide marriage-equality decision.
While we’ve had months to consider the impact that the hearing and our case will have on our nation’s history, the true reality still hasn’t sunk in for us, even with the hearing only days away.
After a recent talk at the University of Memphis, dozens of people waited in line just to shake our hands. Us. Ijpe and Thom. A couple of guys who decided they needed to stand up for their rights and commitment to one another and challenge Tennessee’s marriage ban. One student even told us that he knew everything about us because he wrote his thesis about our case.
When we decided to get married, we did it for the same reasons that others do. We couldn’t imagine our lives without one another, being there for one another, building a life together, and protecting one another — something that became especially important as Ijpe was set to begin a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan a week after our wedding.
During those months when he was serving the country, I spent every day hoping he was OK and watching the calendar for the date we’d be together again. I couldn’t have been happier when he returned. We were stationed in Memphis, where we began building our lives as a married couple and talking about starting a family.
But soon after moving to Memphis, where I’m a graduate art student and Ijpe is earning a bachelor’s degree while working full time as a sergeant for the U.S. Army Reserve, we realized the extent of Tennessee’s laws that ban marriage equality and prohibit recognition of marriages performed in other states.
In Tennessee, Ijpe and I are considered legal strangers. Roommates. Nothing more, nothing less, despite of and in contradiction to our legal marriage as recognized by the State of New York. This lack of recognition puts the life that we are building together at risk. We are unable to make medical decisions if one of us is injured, and if we were to have children through adoption, Tennessee would not recognize us both as parents. If our parentage is not recognized by the state, medical facilities, daycares, schools, or any other institutions in this state have no legal obligation to recognize it, either. These are just a few of examples of the limbo Ijpe and I are placed in every single day — for no reason other than we happen to be two men who are married to each other.
In 2013, we decided to stand up for our relationship and join two other couples in a legal challenge to the state’s ban. As the case worked its way through the court system, the possibility of a Supreme Court hearing wasn’t on our minds. But as next Tuesday draws near, the magnitude of the event is almost too overwhelming for us to grasp.
When we got involved with this case, we had many serious and lengthy discussion as to the possible impact on our marriage. Would it make us stronger, or force us apart? Would we be up to the challenge of opening up our lives to strangers? Would we be willing to answer hard questions about the validity of our relationship? Ultimately, we decided that the risk was worth the task and that we were willing to do our part. This was our brick in the road. As a result, we have received a wave of support and friendship that we had not expected.
We’ve been frequently asked how our lives have changed since becoming plaintiffs. To be honest, in many ways it hasn’t. Ijpe reports to the base daily for duty and goes to classes at the University of Memphis at night. I’ve spent countless hours preparing for my thesis defense and an upcoming graduating show. Between those obligations we juggle the groceries, car repairs, paying the bills – all of the challenges of living a life together. It’s only now, with the oral argument near and my thesis defense safely behind, that the true importance and bigness of everything is starting to sink in. Recently, Freedom to Marry, an organization that campaigns for nationwide same-sex marriage, presented us with a binder of more than 3,000 personal expressions of thanks and support from people across the country. Wow.
What has also changed is our fundamental understanding of the legal process that the case has gone through and how important our justice system really is. The case has made us very aware of the vast amount of attention that marriage equality has garnered in recent years and the intense legal focus of this debate. Viewing this through the lens of a participant has been much like a workman discovering the inner working of a complex machine. It’s both intimidating and fascinating to learn how valuable our rights are, and, how through the work of so many, they remain protected.
We didn’t start this thinking we would make history. All we wanted was to be recognized as a married couple. We’re not asking anyone to change their minds about marriage. We are both firm believers that everyone is entitled to their own opinions. We don’t believe in subjugating other fellow Americans because they don’t share our same values. Diversity and freedom of expression are what make America a great country.
What we want most in the world is to be recognized for who we are — just another ordinary married couple seeking the recognition that our marriage deserves.