After completing what I thought would be my final interview with the plaintiff families involved with the Hamby lawsuit, challenging Alaska’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, I received an unexpected email. Tracey Wiese and her partner, Katrina “Kat” Cortez, volunteered to talk with me for one more edition to Alaska Commons’ “Faces of Equality” series. I caught up with them late last month at the City Diner in Anchorage. The couple was tucked into a corner booth enjoying appetizers as I sat down and introduced myself.
They immediately launched into their origin story.
“The funny thing was, several years before I met Tracey, I’d written a short story,” Kat told me, “about meeting a girl at kickball.” The character she dreamed up was a redhead with glasses. “Later when I met her, it was funny.”
Tracey is a forensic nurse who frequently worked with Kat’s sister, a sexual assault advocate who enlisted Kat to play on a team in a muni kickball league. She met Kat during the team’s first practice. “Kat walked up,” Tracey explained, “and I sort of took this big breath and was, like, ‘Wow. There’s feelings I’ve never felt before.'”
At the time, Tracey was in an opposite-sex marriage and identified as straight. About a year later, she told her husband that she thought she was gay. They’ve since split amicably and share joint custody of their three-year old daughter. “It wasn’t really magic to begin with,” Tracey said. “Sort of awkward and weird and difficult and hard. But there was always this glimmer of hope that maybe she would like me too.”
Finally, at a midnight kickball game on the summer solstice, that glimmer of hope paid off. Kat recalled: “She showed up and the following week we had our first dance.”Photo courtesy of Tracey Wiese and Katrina Cortez
The couple married in Hawaii in March of this year. They came back home to Alaska and held a ceremony in June. But, before any of that, when Tracey had first broached the topic of marriage, Kat added a caveat. “I said yes, but under the condition that it was legal in Alaska. Because, I figured, her of all people would actually make it legal in Alaska.”
“I like to make things happen,” Tracey said, behind a wide grin.
When Caitlin Shortell — one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in Hamby v. Parnell — began looking for same-sex couples to sign onto the suit, Kat and Tracey jumped at the chance. They said that the journey, thus far, has been overwhelmingly positive — thought Tracey makes sure to avoid online comments sections. Whatever awkwardness is there, she tries to bury it with optimism. For Kat, their involvement, and what the case means as a part of the bigger picture for equal rights, is never too far from her thoughts.
The first time that I realized I was attracted to a human being, it was a female. And it has been continuous and I’ve — in fifteen years in this very small town — seen a wide spectrum and it’s something I think about often. You never know who your neighbor is. We still never know if we could be evicted. I’m still terrified every time I go into a job interview. It weighs very, very heavily on my everyday actions. [Tracey] could pass [as straight]. I can’t.
“And together we don’t pass very well,” Tracey added, saying sometimes people’s opinions or judgment is hard to ignore. “I try to keep it light and positive but there’s definitely some times where I’m like, wow, that’s really unfortunate that people still feel that way. It makes me sad and frustrated. It makes me worry for my daughter…. I hope for her sake that it’s a little bit more accepting by that time.”
“Oh, it will be,” Kat immediately reassured her.
Born and raised in Alaska, Kat said she’s seen astronomical changes in the way the LGBT community is treated. She recalled being kicked out of Service High School at the age of 16 after writing an editorial in the school newspaper. The article was about being assaulted by someone who disapproved of her sexual orientation, and was deemed too controversial for publication. “So, I printed up a bunch of copies off the school’s printers and passed them out in the hallways. And they told me to stop doing that. So, my friends printed up a bunch of copies and passed them out. And somehow, the Anchorage Daily News got a hold of it and tracked me down and published it. Two days after it was published I was removed from Service.”
She said that, looking back on the experience now, the episode was a bit hysterical. “[I]t was the first year they did the exit exam. And I failed the writing portion of the exit exam. And they sent me the results at the same time that I received a check for my writing.”
Kat would eventually receive a GED. Years later, a current Service High School student approached her, randomly, on the street and informed her that Service now had a Gay-Straight Alliance. He credited her with being the inspiration for its formation. “It was really nice for, like, four years later to have a kid come up and be like, ‘we are safe in our school thanks to you.’ So, that was one of my most proudest moments ever in the world.”
Things are, indeed, changing. But that shouldn’t be mistaken for the notion that things have already changed, and that discrimination is past tense. For Kat and Tracey, that’s a big part of what the suit is about. Kat sees marriage equality as a precedent that will help curb the open discrimination that exists in Alaska.
“I think it’s a bigger issue and more people think about marriage than people think about how hard it is to walk into an interview with short hair,” she said.
In most parts of the state (including Anchorage), no laws exist to prevent the open discrimination of LGBT Alaskans. Kat describes the self-policing that currently takes place within the queer community. She said that there are certain stores one doesn’t patronize, certain apartments to avoid when trying to find a place to live.
“I’ve always been curious why my money doesn’t spend the same as others,” she said. “It just astounds me when I walk in [to a store] and I’m, like, ‘I want to give you lots of money,’ and they’re like, ‘No!'”
“Don’t you want my lots of money?” Tracey added with a laugh. She was raised in the south, and said she would never take Kat there. Tracey has watched many southern states strike down similar same-sex marriage bans, with Alaska lagging behind, and finds that confusing.
“Alaskans verbalize that they want government out of their lives, and they don’t want government to make their decisions for them,” she said. “But then, oh my God, tell these people they can’t get married. So, for me, I can’t reconcile the two of those in my head, and I really like to have rationale for my decisions.”
Kat and Tracey couldn’t be more different. Tracey looks like a business professional whereas Kat was dressed in overalls that looked like they had just built several houses. Tracey likes five year plans and Kat is spontaneous. Tracey likes to avoid conflict and stay positive while Kat is abrupt and confrontational. Their dynamic is fun to watch. Their differences are magnetic. Each glowed while the other spoke. Every response emphasized a reliance on one another; Kat’s eccentricities complete Tracey’s soft spoken nature. Tracey’s attention to detail enables Kat’s off-the-cuff personality.
I’ve never met them apart, but am confident that it would look odd. That’s the fun part of getting to know a couple that is in love; you see them after they have created a mutual identity together.
It’s the same quality I recognized in all of the other couples — and in every loving couple I’ve ever met. Every individual finds strength in their partner’s character; each tries to find ways to be that strength for their partner. We all fill certain roles to make the family unit the best and most complete it can be, and we never stop trying to do it better. That connection — that natural inclination and desire to be who we need to be and do what we need to do to make that relationship stronger — is the best working definition for love that I’ve come up with yet. Whatever (if anything) gender or sexual orientation or identity have to do with that is, to me, a moot point. In the end, it’s nice to see two people who are in love, and hard to imagine why anyone would have anything to offer aside from their best wishes.