Beth Schissel was nervous last week when she went to apply for her marriage license in DeKalb County, Georgia. Schissel, an emergency room doctor and an honorably discharged Air Force veteran, was with her partner of 15 years, Sally White. Schissel knew she and White would be denied — "The clerk was very nice and apologetic" — and they were; same-sex marriage, never legal in Georgia, was officially banned in a 2004 amendment to the state constitution, which also banned civil unions.
"It felt like Coming Out Day again," Schissel says. "I'm in my mid-40s, I'm established in my career — but it's that concept of rejection you're anticipating."
Schissel and White are just one of several same-sex couples — most of them from small towns across the South — who have applied for marriage licenses since New Year's. It's part of a campaign called WE DO, begun by the Asheville, N.C.-based nonprofit Southern Equality, designed to draw attention to marriage laws throughout the South by having couples apply for marriage licenses in seven mostly medium-sized cities and metro areas, including Hattiesburg, Miss., Mobile, Ala. and Decatur, Ga.
The WE DO movement is planned to end in Arlington, Va., where more couples will be denied licenses — followed hours later, just a few miles away, with a legal same-sex wedding at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. scheduled for Jan. 17 — four days before President Barack Obama (the first president to express support for same-sex marriage) is publicly reinaugurated. The juxtaposition is intentional.
"When we're in Virginia, we're second-class citizens," says the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, one of the march's organizers. "Then we cross the border into Washington, D.C., and suddenly all these rights are granted to us."
Nine states and the District of Columbia currently recognize same-sex marriage. Seven of those states are in the Northeast; none are in the South. (Same-sex marriage legislation was introduced into both houses of the Illinois legislature last week.) Across the country, each state has a patchwork of laws regarding same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Louisiana voters passed a same-sex marriage ban in the Louisiana Constitution in September 2004 by a percentage of 78 to 22 percent. That ban was immediately challenged on the basis of constitutionality, but the decision was upheld unanimously by the state Supreme Court in 2005.
State numbers have shifted in favor of same-sex marriage in the years since then — as they have across the nation. A CNN poll taken in the mid-1990s found only 23 percent of Louisianans supported same-sex marriage, while a 2010 poll found that number had risen to 36 percent — ahead of several other Southern states, including Alabama (26 percent), Mississippi (27 percent), Arkansas (29 percent) and Georgia (34 percent). Among Gulf Coast states in the 2010 poll, only Florida was higher, where 41 percent of respondents supported same-sex marriage. But Southern and Midwestern states have some of the lowest support for same-sex marriage in the country.
About a dozen couples will be making part or all of the trek, says Beach-Ferrara, a minister at the United Church of Christ in Asheville, who organized Southern Equality in 2011. "Folks approach us from across the South, wanting to take part," Beach-Ferrara says, adding that WE DO didn't stop in Louisiana simply because no Louisiana couples had contacted the group. "We try to build it in response to where we see pockets of interest," she adds, "and we are finding small towns and small cities are the places where there's the most resonance.
"Sometimes the clerks go out of their way to say they wish they could grant the request," Beach-Ferrara said of the experiences the group has encountered. "Other times folks are always professional and civil, but they're pretty disengaged, very perfunctory."
Beth Littrell, a lawyer in the Southeastern office of the LGBT organization Lambda Legal, served as a legal observer in DeKalb County, and says between 75 and 100 supporters showed up as five couples there applied for marriage licenses. "It's hard to put into words how powerful and uplifting it was," Littrell says. "Discrimination as a concept is something I fight against every day, but discrimination as a sort of physical entity — it had a different effect, seeing citizens being denied something their friends and neighbors are provided as a matter of course." Among those applying for licenses there: a 70-year-old couple who had been partnered for 30 years and were denied.
"I mean, Kim Kardashian gets a license, Britney Spears gets a license ..." Schissel says, chuckling. "The sky didn't fall when Maryland issued marriage licenses in the new year, and it's not going to fall now," she adds. "There was no chanting and there's no name-calling. I wouldn't participate in anything that's disrespectful."
Schissel was discharged from the U.S. Air Force under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell provision enacted in 1993 under then-President Bill Clinton. It was repealed in 2011. She sees parallels between that policy and state constitutions barring same-sex marriages. "I guarantee you have people today who were on the other side of the Civil Rights Act [of 1963]," she says, "and the question today is: Do you want to be on the right or the wrong side of history?"
"We are using a new strategy in the South, and the South is often completely dismissed when it comes to strategy or strategic innovation," Beach-Ferrara says of WE DO. "And some people think: Why talk about full equality in the South when you're not going to get there any time soon?"
"It's not about 'Leave the South,'" Schissel says. "We're happy here. It's about starting conversations with people so we can open some hearts and minds."