Pensacola, Florida
Sunday August 19th 2018

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First Comes Love Then Comes…

Local Love Stories and the Heart of the Marriage Equality Movement
by Jessica Forbes

Imagine waiting 40 years to marry the person you love.

Like millions of other same-sex couples throughout the U.S., Pensacolians David Richbourg and Norman Ricks don’t have to imagine what it’s like to build a life together yet be unable to legally marry for decades—it is part of their story.

In 2010, the couple married in Provincetown, Mass. after almost 40 years together. Their wedding took place the day after Ricks’ 80th birthday.

“Massachusetts was the first state, so we wanted to go to where it was legal first,” said Richbourg.

“At the airport [in Provincetown] there’s a big sign that says, ‘We believe in and practice diversity. If you do not, please leave,’” Ricks remembered.

Since 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to legalize gay marriage, 13 other states and the District of Columbia have also made same-sex marriages legal. Until recently, however, those marriages were not recognized by the federal government, and they currently remain unrecognized in 35 states, including Florida.

So, while a same-sex couple could be legally married in one state, they were ineligible to file for federal taxes together, share health insurance and other federal spousal work benefits, or—for military couples—live in base housing together, among other disparities.

A significant move toward widespread legal equality occurred in June, when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prohibited recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes.

But while federal recognition is currently rolling out, couples who live in states where same-sex marriages are not recognized still face inequalities when it comes to marriage rights—most specifically related to taxes, health insurance and visitation rights in hospitals.

The Domino Effect
The disjointed system within which married same-sex couples navigate represents the transitional and historic nature of this point in time, over 50 years after the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement began.

“We appreciate those that went before us,” Ricks stated. “Can you imagine the courage it took for those queens at Stonewall the night they took off their high heels and beat the hell out of those police? That took a lot of guts back then; there was nobody to help them.”

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which Ricks referenced, were widely recognized as the beginning of the LGBT Rights Movement. Patrons of a gay bar raided by police resisted arrest and sparked riots that continued for days in protest of institutionalized discrimination against LGBT Americans, which is ongoing—marriage equality being the case in point.

Over 50 years after Stonewall, Ricks and Richbourg are now proud to serve as an example of what’s possible for younger LGBT couples.

The couple has lived in Pensacola for the entirety of their relationship and Ricks said, to the best of his knowledge, they have never been discriminated against, “but we have friends who have, and it’s for them.”

“Think about a generation ago how many people lived their entire lives in the closet. They gave up their entire life of being who they were in order to fit the mold … maybe just to keep their employment,” said Richbourg. “We were lucky enough to own our own businesses, and be secure financially and it didn’t matter—we couldn’t get fired for being gay.”

Richbourg said his fundamental belief and what he has expressed to friends who were unsure they fully supported same-sex marriage is, “I’m not telling you that your church needs to marry us, because this has nothing to do with religion, this has to do with equal rights. Your church can not marry gay people forever if that’s what you want to do in your church, but I don’t think you should tell me that I can’t be married.”

Before same-sex marriages or civil unions were legal, Ricks and Richbourg did what they could to get their legal and financial lives as close to a marriage as possible. The couple had a Holy Union ceremony in Key West over 20 years ago and made legal arrangements that provided the same protections heterosexual marriages convey.

“A lot of the things that we went to the lawyer and did 25 and 30 years ago so that I would be able to go in his hospital room and make the decisions with his doctors and he could do the same things, and inheritance issues … we did all of that, we tap-danced with the lawyers and the CPAs to try to make the things that would come automatically with marriage happen for us, because we didn’t think we’d ever be married,” Richbourg remembered.

“We locked it up really tight,” said Ricks. “We own everything together… there is never, ever, a question of who comes first:  Each other.”

Love and equality are terms at the heart of the marriage equality debate, and for Ricks framing the movement in any other way is unacceptable and inaccurate. “There is no gay agenda; there is an agenda of equality,” said Ricks.

“We wanted to get married because of our love for each other and wanting to be public about it,” said Ricks, “but also I have seen through the years, at 84, young gay people put down, discriminated against, and I said, ‘I will be damned if I’m going to be quiet and sit back.’”

At Last, Insured
Since the June SCOTUS rulings, federal agencies including the Department of Defense (DOD), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and Veteran’s Administration (VA), among others, have extended recognition and benefits to same-sex couples under presidential directive and Department of Justice guidance.

“Yes, we too can be subject to the marriage penalty now, yay!” Laura Ericson, 48, joked, adding, “I put an amendment on my form every year since we’ve been married that I would’ve paid more taxes but for the federal government not recognizing our marriage.”

Like any married couple, Ericson and her wife Stephanie Karous, 49, have had taxes—and insurance—on their minds.

The couple is currently two months into sharing a health insurance plan, a right they first began lobbying for in 2011.

Married in Washington, D.C. in July 2011, Ericson applied to add Karous to her plan during the government’s open enrollment period that year. When declined, Ericson enlisted the help of the ACLU to file an administrative challenge to have Karous recognized as her spouse.

“When they declined our claim, they cited the Florida state constitution and DOMA,” said Karous.

After the eight month application and challenge process, the couple was aware that the Windsor case would go before the Supreme Court and waited for the decision. Two days after the Supreme Court rulings in June, Ericson’s federal employer circulated a memo saying the agency would recognize same-sex marriages.

“After the Windsor decision came out it was literally two days and then I had her signed up for health insurance,” said Ericson.

Timing was in the couple’s favor; Karous had just sold her veterinary practice in Atlanta—through which she had obtained health insurance—in order to permanently relocate to Pensacola.

“It came in the nick of time,” Karous stated. “Otherwise we would’ve had to pay out of pocket considerably more than what I was paying before.”

“In Florida, we’re probably in a lot better shape than most people because I’m a federal employee,” said Ericson.

For couples in which neither spouse works for the federal government, however, sharing health care coverage is often not permitted as a result of the patchwork of legal recognition for same-sex marriages. Outside of the workplace, as Floridians, Ericson and Karous still do not receive other benefits—such as marriage discounts on car insurance—that heterosexual couples do in this state.

Having thought about marriage for two years before they wed Ericson and Karous point out that there are fundamental inequalities between the basic opposite- and same-sex marriage processes as they currently stand.

“You really have to figure out what you have to do, you have to plan,” Karous explained of the marriage process for same-sex couples. “You have to take time off from work, traveling, there are a lot of expenses involved.”

“You can’t just run down to the courthouse on your lunch hour,” Ericson said.

Going the Distance
Vince Abbott and John Connor have been together for 13 years. Originally from Kentucky, the couple moved to Pensacola 11 years ago.

Abbott, 48, and Connor, 53, spoke to the IN shortly before traveling to New York to marry in mid-September.

“I never thought in my lifetime that I would ever see this,” Abbott said of his and Connor’s ability to legally marry. “It was never even a thought until the Supreme Court ruling and because of his condition.”

In March 2012, Connor was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, which doctors recently told the couple is inactive, but not officially in remission. “He was probably within a month of death and they brought him back … it was a rough time,” Abbott remembered.

Fortunately, Connor’s then-employer General Electric provided health insurance, though he is now considered permanently disabled and will lose coverage this November.

Like many same-sex couples, Abbott and Connor have previously faced tough decisions regarding insurance. Though GE provides health benefits to same-sex couples, once Abbott was on Connor’s plan, it became clear that the benefits would be too costly.

“It’s so expensive,” Connor recalled. “It took all of my wages.”

“It was only cheap if you lived in a state where you were married and the state recognized the marriage,” said Abbott who only stayed on the plan for a few months. “It’s great that they offer it, but it becomes discriminatory because of the state differences.”

The Supreme Court rulings came at a difficult time for the couple as Connor underwent treatment and they evaluated their options as long-term partners.

“We did everything we could legally to leave everything to me up to that point,” said Abbott.

“We sat here until the Supreme Court ruling came through on the TV. He lies down with his eyes closed most of the time, but he just raised up and said, ‘I guess you need to start looking at plane tickets,’ and laid back down,” Abbott recalled with a chuckle.

“I’m just glad he’s able to go,” said Abbott. “That was scary:  The thought that now we can do it, but now can he make it?”

The couple chose New York City for a quick and easy trip and, as Connor pointed out, “No states around here allow it.” Traveling with a group of friends for the ceremony, the couple planned to get their rings at Macy’s and visit a few museums if Connor was feeling up to it.

“We were going to go to Washington, D.C., but they have a three day waiting period, whereas New York’s is only 24 hours. But you can get a judge’s injunction in New York where you don’t even have to wait that long; Washington, D.C. doesn’t even offer that,” said Abbott.

When asked if they think things will feel different once they are married, Abbott and Connor both laughed. “We’ve been together so long, at this point it’s just a technicality,” Abbott said. “It’s just a relief knowing that we have that protection now.”

Connor explained further, “We’re doing it for taxes; federal income taxes will eat you up.”

Another P-Town Love Story
As in D.C., marriages in Massachusetts require a three business day mandatory waiting period after filing intentions to marry; both parties must be present at the time of filing for a marriage license, meaning couples from elsewhere need to plan for at least five days in state or two trips to marry. For younger same-sex couples or those without the means to travel, such financial and time requirements leave marriage out of reach.

Robert Bellanova, 58, and his husband Davie Wass, 39, got married in 2010 in Provincetown, Mass. Together for five years at that point and hearing about their friends Richbourg and Ricks’ experience in “P-town,” Bellanova and Wass decided to take the plunge and traveled to Provincetown to legally wed.

A popular location for weddings, Provincetown has websites dedicated to wedding planning in their town, catering to both heterosexual and homosexual couples travelling from out-of-state. Likewise, other states that have legalized gay marriage, such as Minnesota, are recognizing the economic boon associated with acceptance. Mayor R.T. Rybak recently kicked off his “I Want to Marry You in Minneapolis” campaign to draw couples from across the Midwest to marry—and relocate—to his city.

Joking that they had to elope, as there wouldn’t be a Pensacola venue large enough to hold their families, Bellanova and Wass both acknowledged the complexity of emotions involved with having to marry outside of their home state.

“It’s kind of sad that you have to go away. You can’t just go to your local church or to your home and do that in order for it to be legal. It’s an odd situation,” said Bellanova, but added, “To go to the courthouse there in Provincetown was really an experience … the whole process was wonderful.”

Previously married to and divorced from a woman, Bellanova didn’t believe he would ever marry again. “I didn’t think that was an option for me,” he recalled of his early years being openly gay. “Then when I met Davie, he had been single and had never been through that process and I didn’t really like that, it really wasn’t fair. Plus, the love was there.”

Wass never thought marriage would be an option for him, either.

“To hear the term ‘husband and husband,’” Wass remembered, “I wanted to say those words—a ‘holy union’ wasn’t enough. I don’t want to offend anybody, but it wasn’t enough for me. It’s so awesome to have a legal wedding license. You can say ‘husband and husband,’ and I wanted to go someplace where that’s stated and you get the document.”

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