State of the union: 18,000 Californian gay couples are legally married in a state which outlaws it

Last year, California passed a controversial law allowing same-sex marriage for the first time. But now, the state's Supreme Court has overturned that right, resulting in a uniquely bizarre situation whereby 18,000 gay couples are legally married in a state which outlaws it

The bride wore a white tuxedo. And so, according to the breathless TV reports, did her bride. On 16 June last year, Robin Tyler and Diane Olson drove to Beverly Hills courthouse, where a liberal Rabbi conducted a simple half-hour ceremony that made them the first same-sex couple, in the history of Los Angeles County, to be legally married. They'd been together for 16 years. Needless to say, it was the happiest day of their lives.

Fast-forward to 26 May 2009, a month shy of their first anniversary. Again, Tyler and Olson faced a red letter day. But this one wasn't such a party. Instead, the couple sat anxiously in a lawyer's office, surrounded once more by the world's media, waiting for California's Supreme Court to decide whether their wedding, and many thousands of gay and lesbian weddings like it, should be declared null and void.

It's difficult, taking a detached view of this course of events, to decide whether Tyler and Olson are extremely lucky, or appallingly unfortunate.

Did they hit a historic jackpot, being citizens in a Western democracy where two women can fall in love and spend the rest of their lives together? Or draw a short straw: choosing to formalise their relationship in California, at the exact point in history where gay weddings are at the centre of a fierce dispute?

But back to 26 May. On that day, California's Supreme Court was meeting to discuss Proposition 8, a controversial ballot measure which had passed by a slim majority at the Presidential Election. It stipulated that henceforth: "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognised in California". Seven judges (four men and three women) were charged with deciding whether that measure was constitutional. And, if so, what that meant for marriages like Tyler and Olson's.

At around 10am, the verdict arrived. It was broadly as expected: the justices upheld, until further notice, a ban on new same-sex weddings which had begun in November, when the measure originally passed. But they decided that Tyler and Olson, and roughly 18,000 other gay couples who'd been married during the six-month period when the practice was legal, would be allowed to remain husband and husband, or wife and wife.

"It felt bittersweet," recalls Tyler. "We'd been sat in the conference room at our attorney's office, joking and saying, 'Can you imagine if we're suddenly divorced?' But deep down, of course, we were worried. Then the verdict was announced. I remember feeling relieved that we were still married, but very angry that other loving couples have been denied equality."

All of which leaves Tyler and Olson, and thousands of other recently wed men and women, in a unique position. They are now members of a curious breed: gay couples who are legally living in a state of matrimony, despite also being residents in a part of the world where same-sex marriage is officially illegal.

This social experiment also makes them Exhibit A in a fiercely topical political dispute. In Middle America, where God, guns and "small-c" conservatism holds sway, gay marriage is the most divisive subject of our times. Like all truly explosive social issues, the debate over its future sits at the exact point where religion, morality and entrenched prejudice collide. And California is where that debate is currently at its most heated.

The US has no national policy on same-sex unions. Instead, the buck is shunted to individual states. Massachusetts was the first to legalise gay marriage, in 2004. In the past year, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire have followed suit. For some time California, America's most populous state, and perhaps its most influential bellwether, has been debating whether to take the symbolic step of joining them.

To an outsider, it may seem a touch strange that this famously liberal state, which is home to San Francisco, with its vibrant Castro District, and the rainbow-flagged enclaves of West Hollywood, should be lagging behind rednecked Iowa on one of the touchstone progressive issues of the day. But as the recent Oscar-winning film Milk showed, California has trodden a rocky path towards gay equality.

Recent years have been something of a rollercoaster: first, gay marriage was unilaterally introduced by Gavin Newsom, the Mayor of San Francisco, in 2004; then, it was almost immediately stopped by a slew of competing lawsuits, which took four years to wind their way through the State's turgid legal system. Next, a State Supreme Court decision saw it abruptly re-introduced state-wide for five months last year.

Proposition 8, of course, brought that party to a close. It passed with the help of widespread financial support from members of the Mormon Church, who are centred in nearby Utah, and other religious groups, who helped fund a misleading series of TV adverts claiming that gay marriage would result in children being indoctrinated in school and taught that "a prince can marry a prince and a princess can marry a princess".

The bill's victory, by a margin of 52.5-47.5 per cent (or roughly half a million votes), was eased by the huge turnout at the Presidential election by Latino voters, who tend to have a Catholic conscience, and the black community, who were anxious to endorse Obama, but who also tend towards social conservatism. Many "yes" voters had been advised by preachers and churches to vote against gay marriage.

Countering this juggernaut, California's gay community dropped the ball. It ran a lacklustre campaign, had an uninspiring slogan ("No on 8 – unfair and wrong") and failed to strike a chord with voters. On election day, many liberals failed to show at California's polling stations since (due to time-zone differences) the Presidential election, the day's "big ticket" event, appeared to have already been decided by mid-afternoon.

That, however, is now ancient history. In the ashes of defeat, Prop 8's opponents can draw some comfort. Firstly, the bill's passage radicalised many younger members of the gay community, who had not previously had to battle hard for equal rights like their forebears. The numbers attending recent demonstrations have been staggering; turnouts at LA's gay-pride parade in early June was estimated at double the level of previous years.

Secondly, the result prompted Equality California, the organisation now spearheading the drive for gay marriage rights, to get its house in order. Marc Solomon, the lobbyist who brought same-sex weddings to Massachusetts, has taken the director's chair. Members are currently debating whether to ask Californians to vote again on gay marriage at the 2010 mid-term elections, or to keep their powder dry for a tilt in 2012.

Either way, that battle will be tough. But supporters of gay marriage sense that history is on their side. Support for gay marriage is upwards of 65 per cent among voters under the age of 35. Opposition to it is highest among pensioners. Bluntly, the enemies of would-be same-sex married couples are dying off.

Great demographic shifts don't happen overnight, though. In 1948, a Californian court first legalised the inter-racial marriage. Much like gay marriage today, it too prompted noisy opposition, from a slight majority. It wasn't until inter-racial marriage had been legalised on a national level in the US (at the unthinkably late date of 1964) that numbers endorsing it shifted significantly.

So married couples like Tyler and Olson are in a position of great responsibility. The success, or failure, of their partnerships is likely to define the future of the gay marriage debate. Married gay couples have thereby become ambassadors for their cause (see first-person interviews, opposite), whether they hope to make their case through protest, like Kelly Conrad and Kathy Turner, reason, like Alicia Baroso and Maria Aragon, or just by existing – as with Alex Morales and David Connors.

Opponents of same-sex marriages will, of course, continue to argue that they weaken the institution of heterosexual marriage or threaten family life (the latter point always made without reference to the fact that some 22 per cent of gay American couples also have children). Most damagingly, as in November's election, they will allege that same-sex couples will, when married, somehow seek to indoctrinate the nation's youth.

In the face of such criticism, California's gay-marriage advocates have in the past tended to commence name-calling, or have fallen back on their sense of humour, cracking jokes about, say, the irony of using the term "same-sex marriage" (since sex, they joke, is never the same after marriage), or by quoting the talk-show host Bill Maher: "Gay people have every right to insist that they will not be happy until they are allowed to be miserable."

But now they have something far better: 18,000 married couples who demonstrate, through their very existence, that the apocalyptic predictions of their opponents are wrong. Just as the introduction of Civil Partnerships in the UK led to a dramatic decrease in opposition to same-sex relationships, so California's handful of married gay couples are now, as Robin Tyler puts it, part of "a vast army of love, which has a duty to go out there, to knock on doors, and to make our voices heard".

Legally wed: Five Californian couples tell their stories

1. Alicia Barocio & Maria Aragon

We celebrated our 15th year together on 21 April. A few weeks later, we were among the thousands of couples who went to West Hollywood to protest [about Proposition 8]. I'm still angry and disappointed about what happened. We've been made to feel like second-class citizens. People say, "At least you're still married", but that's not the point: instead of feeling privileged to be among the 18,000 married couples, we now feel stigmatised. We're part of this odd group with its whole status hanging in the air.

In any election, if you have money, and you shout loud enough, then of course your voice will be heard. What disappointed me was how easily you can manipulate policy: even if only 1 or 2 per cent of people's minds are changed, that's enough to make laws.

One thing I've been pleasantly surprised by, though, is people's reactions. They've been very supportive. When I walk into my local Starbucks now they'll ask, "How's your wife?" If one positive thing has happened from this whole process it would be that it's shaken things up and started a conversation. Looking ahead, that has to be positive.

2. Alex Morales & David Connors

We've been together for 18 years. After our first year, we had a commitment ceremony at our church. The priest blessed our partnership, and wrote a letter acknowledging that he had done this, and saying that some time he hoped to be able to swap the letter for a marriage certificate.

Last year, we were finally able to do that. Henry, our priest, talked to Gene Robinson [the openly gay Anglican Bishop of New Hampshire] and got a ceremony together. He used the word "spouse" rather than "husband" or "wife". But otherwise everything was pretty much a typical wedding service.

Saying those words, "I take this person", it means a lot. Both of us were crying. It was incredibly validating.

I have always seen my lifestyle as a personal matter. To that end, the best thing David and I can do is to live openly and honestly in our dealings with straight people. Then hopefully, they will see that gays and lesbians are just normal. We need to let them see the similarities, rather than the differences between us. If that happens, and I believe it will, then equality is bound to come; the only question is when.

3. Robin Tyler & Diane Olson

Even al jazeera reported our wedding. They said that two Jewish lesbians had been married by a rabbi in Beverly Hills. I doubt they meant it sympathetically, though.

We'd been together for 16 years but known each other for 35. On the day, people asked, "What are you going to do on your honeymoon?" I replied: "We've been together for 16 years. All we want to do is to go get some sleep."

Seriously, though, we had to earn our marriage. We couldn't just go to Vegas, say, and get married in 24 hours. We had to fight for it. It makes you wonder: how can people vote against love?

I've been involved in the gay rights movement since the 1970s. In recent years, people felt very secure. It was almost a given that they had equal rights. But this has made them realise that they will have nothing unless they go out and protest and battle for it. Today, just being married in California is an act of defiance. We are on the front line now. And by just being around, we can demonstrate the absurdity of a law that says that 18,000 couples being married is OK, but 18,001 would not be.

4. Kelly Conrad & Kathy Turner

We'd had a commitment ceremony about a year after we met, and filed for domestic partnership rights in the early 1990s when they were introduced. When marriage was legalised, it seemed like the natural thing to do. We couldn't get a wedding appointment because it was so busy, so my son said, "Why don't we just go down and wait it out?"

It was actually a joint ceremony. We have a daughter, Delaney, from Kathy's previous marriage, and she happens to be gay. So she and her girlfriend, Danni, who are from Las Vegas, where same-sex marriage is illegal, came down to San Diego, where we live, to tie the knot.

I've always been gay and that means I've always had this feeling that somehow I wasn't quite good enough, not normal. I've always had to hide. When marriage became legal it felt like: "Wow, we're out in the open!" I felt so proud and all of a sudden we're back in hiding.

The election was hard. I had neighbours who were good friends, people who I'd helped out in the past, and they had "Yes on 8" signs in their yard. I'm not a confrontational person, but I have a really hard time dealing with them.

5. Wes Stieringer & Michael van Duzer

We'd been together for seven years, and felt like we were married in every aspect apart from the official, so I thought the marriage would be just a piece of paper. But in the event, it was far more than that: it was incredibly moving, and I got choked up. Emotionally it's the culmination of everything you are as a couple. It puts you in a different class and makes you a different kind of person.

Instead of giving gifts at our wedding, we'd set up an online registry and asked people to give money to the "No on Proposition 8" campaign. So after the election, we were all the more saddened. Michael works for the theatre union, I'm employed by the Aids Healthcare Foundation, and we live in West Hollywood, so it's very easy to just take it for granted that everyone's gay-friendly, but of course this showed otherwise.

The fact that, by existing, we're now kind of breaking the law is strange. But it also means that by existing, and being ourselves, we can also change the minds of people so that next time this comes to a vote, the result will be different.

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