Five years on, LGBT+ couples fear for future of gay marriage

by Oscar Lopez | @oscarlopezgib | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 24 June 2020 18:31 GMT

Married couple Stacey and Cheralyn Stevenson are seen in this handout photo from Family Equality via the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Gay and lesbian couples fear that same-sex marriage could be a target for conservative judges and lawmakers.

By Oscar Lopez

MEXICO CITY, June 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It only took a year of dating for Greg Borski to realize that his then boyfriend Phillip was the one.

"I just knew I really wanted to spend the rest of my life with him," Borski said by phone from their home in Texas.

"We wanted to do it right - get married and then have kids," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But it took eight years and a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 before the country recognized their union.

"It was like a burden had been lifted," recalled Phillip Borski, adding that for years, both men feared their parental rights over their three children could be taken away. "We didn't have to worry about our family."

On Friday, the LGBT+ community will celebrate five years since that historic decision, but with a sharp conservative turn in U.S. politics, some gay and lesbian couples are worried for the future of hard fought gains such as gay marriage.

"It scares me," said Greg, of the country's rightward shift. "There's always this pushback - they're slowly chipping away at our rights, a little here, a little there."

Ever since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016, LGBT+ rights have come under increasing pressure through both executive order and legal challenge.

In 2017, Trump announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military, and this month, rescinded Obama-era guidelines protecting trans people from healthcare discrimination.

"We have an administration...that is trying to turn back the clock, " said Stan Sloan, chief executive of Family Equality, a U.S.-based LGBT+ rights group.

The Trump administration also argued against extending workplace protections to LGBT+ people, a challenge denied by the Supreme Court's historic decision last week ruling that federal law protected gay and trans people from discrimination at work.

But despite this, gay and lesbian families, as well as LGBT+ activists, worry that same-sex marriage could become a target.

"We both still live in that fearful place," said Cheralyn Stevenson, who has been with her wife Stacey for 14 years. "It doesn't matter to us that we're married…(it) can still be ripped away from us at any time."

'SKIM MILK MARRIAGE'

While an outright dismissal of same-sex marriage is considered highly unlikely, legal experts say decisions at state level and in the lower courts, many filled with Trump-appointed judges, could erode protections for gay couples.

"The greatest fear is having what Justice (Ruth Bader) Ginsberg calls ‘skim milk marriage,'" said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at LGBT+ advocacy group The Human Rights Campaign.

"You have the ability to marry but your rights and benefits and obligations within that marriage don't look the same.

"That's a very real fear," she said.

Since the historic 2015 ruling, nearly 300,000 gay and lesbian couples have wed, boosting state and local economies by an estimated $3.8 billion, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California.

Support for same-sex marriage has also increased, with more than six in 10 Americans in favor, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), against just 36% in 2007.

But approval remains divided across party lines, with nearly three-quarters of Democrats and two-thirds of independents favoring same-sex marriage, versus 47% of Republicans, according to the PRRI's research.

For the 2020 election, the Republican Party has adopted the same platform as it did for 2016, backing "traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman".

And despite the Supreme Court ruling, most states continue to carry gay marriage bans on the books, with Republicans in states such as Florida and Indiana blocking attempts to strike down the outdated and ineffectual bans.

Married couple Greg and Phillip Borski are seen in this handout photo from Family Equality via the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

'KEEP UP THE FIGHT'

Meanwhile, the issue of whether religious groups should be able to refuse to serve gay and lesbian couples because of spiritual beliefs has come up several times in federal court.

In 2018, the Supreme Court sided with a baker who declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, saying it would violate his Christian beliefs.

During its next session, the Court will also hear a dispute over the city of Philadelphia's refusal to place children with a Catholic agency that bars gay and lesbian couples from fostering.

Even in its latest ruling on workplace discrimination, Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, noted that the Court was "deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution."

"The smaller decisions that are being made...under the guise of religious liberty, every one of those chips away at our marriages," said Stan Sloan, chief executive of Family Equality, a local LGBT+ rights group.

"Even though they may still be legal, they don't have the same protections, and they don't have the same equality that heterosexual marriage does," he said.

Married couple Cheralyn and Stacey Stevenson are seen in this handout photo from Family Equality via the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It's this fear of going back to second-class citizenship that has made Stacey and Cheralyn determined to speak out.

Before gay marriage was legal, Cheralyn went to court to adopt Stacey's last name: the judge was ruling mostly on divorce cases, she said, taking 30 seconds with the divorcing couples, whereas she was interrogated for 10 minutes.

"I called Stacey crying, I was hysterical," she recalled. "You're giving out divorces like hotcakes, with no questions asked... I'm given the 10th degree like I'm a criminal."

As for Greg and Phillip, their 11-year-old daughter has become an outspoken advocates for LGBT+ rights, and they're hopeful others will follow her example.

"We hope the younger generation will not take it for granted," said Greg. "You gotta keep up the fight."

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U.S. Supreme Court ruling boosts legal argument for LGBT+ rights, experts say

(Reporting by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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