At the front of the Anchorage PrideFest march this past Saturday were five brave families carrying the banner for marriage equality in Alaska. Matt Hamby and Chris Shelden; Chris Laborde, Susan Tow, their sons Lakota and Dylan, and Lakota’s girlfriend Erica; Sean Egan (who’s husband is on active duty in Florida); Tracey Wise and Katrina Cortez; and Courtney Lamb and Stephanie Pearson are all named plaintiffs in the lawsuit Hamby v. Parnell, a District Court challenge of the state’s prohibition on same-sex marriages. Last week, the Parnell administration announced plans to fight the lawsuit.
That’s when I hit a wall. I had no idea what to say.
I write about policy and the people who craft it. Sitting down inside the Rustic Goat on a rainy afternoon in Anchorage, I realized the couple had graciously agreed to an interview about… being in love?
How does one do that? I have no Doctor Phil hat — and would feel silly attempting to don one when speaking with two people who have been married longer than I have known my own wife.
But I guess that’s kind of the point, right?
Same-sex marriage is often covered, and talked about, like it takes place on page one. As if it’s the starting point of a narrative; a point in which society assumes the responsibility to adjudicate its morality or validity, like we’re approving a license for a new business.
Maybe that’s the root of our capacity to undervalue such a basic human right while downplaying the recognition that should come with it. We do each family a disservice by treating their stories as though pen had not already met paper.
For Chris and Matt, that initial inking occurred over a decade ago, when a mutual friend introduced them to each other at Humpy’s.
“Obviously, there was some physical attraction immediately,” Chris said, sipping a mug of coffee. “But, we spent some time together. We have mutual interests.”
Chris ended up working a lot in the Bush with Matt and dog, Jack, doing avalanche rescue. They bonded over their love for the outdoors — the couple really does look like they fell out of an REI catalog. A few years later, during a hundred mile canoe trip in Wood-Tikchik State Park (where Chris had lived for several years), Matt proposed. Jack now had two dads.
“It just kind of felt like the right time,” he recounted with a smile. “We were in love with each other and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.”
Marriage equality was still outlawed in most of the United States. The couple headed to Canada, where they took their vows in an outdoor ceremony in front of 40 friends and family. Then, on December 20, 2013, Utah’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriages was overturned.
“We were already on a trip down to visit Matt’s family for the holidays, and suddenly gay marriage was legal in Utah of all places,” Chris said, his smile widening. “Which, him having grown up there, we thought that was as unlikely as Alaska or more so. So, we got excited. We wanted to support things. We went down to see the crowds. And, of course, the day we got there was Christmas Eve, and there weren’t a lot of people there. So, we got in line and got remarried at that point.”
Chris and Matt had accomplished the single most difficult hurdle involved with falling in love. They found each other. With the blessing of loved ones, they committed themselves to each other — albeit internationally. And when the U.S. caught up, they reaffirmed that commitment. And when they touched back down in Anchorage, they knew what the next step was, and had an increasingly clear vision of what their roles would be.
“I thought it was important to stand up for our rights,” Matt said. “And I did feel that if people like us didn’t, [the right to marry in Alaska] wasn’t just going to be handed out.”
A flurry of marriage equality bans flooded state constitutions following the passage of DOMA in 1996. Alaska and Hawaii were early pioneers in discrimination, enacting in 1998 the first bans since Kentucky in 1973. From 1998 to 2012, that number swelled to 20. Last year, however, the Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor struck down the federal definition limiting marriage as between one man and one woman. There has been a major tide change subsequent to the landmark decision.
“In some ways I feel like the people that got involved in some of these cases a few years ago, they were really the courageous ones,” Chris explained. “Since then we’ve seen a huge change in the amount of support in every day Americans, and in legal support, and in all these cases being decided against bans. So, for us, Alaska was kind of a tough nut to crack. I think it was a very hostile environment just a few years ago. I don’t feel quite that way now.”
In fact, both Matt and Chris said that the response they’ve gotten, since signing onto the lawsuit, has been universally positive. The criticism they see occasionally online has, in their opinion, been silly. They hope that the U.S. District Court will agree, and that ten years from now the conversation in Alaska has moved on.
“What I’d like to see is this to become a non-issue,” Chris mused after I asked what he hopes the future will look like. “That we’d just really not think anything of it. Enjoy people for who they are. I really don’t want to be ‘gay-married.’ I just want to be free and otherwise not very noteworthy.
Still, in many media outlets nationally and in state, writers still use the term “gay marriage.” It is reflective of the transitional stage we’re in. But some day, our kids will likely look back and stumble over the references the same way we would react, today, to a reputable newspaper referring to a “black-married” couple.
Matt said he hopes that going forward, “it’ll just be known as marriage, there won’t be any qualifiers.” He recalled the opinion written by Pennsylvania District Court Judge John Jones III, overturning that state’s ban this past May:
In the sixty years since Brown was decided, “separate” has thankfully faded into history, and only “equal” remains. Similarly, in future generations the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage. We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.