Kentucky voices: Gay Marriage

Ky. Voices: After 25 years together, status still unclear in Ky.

July 7, 2013 

Charlotte Wood of Lexington was the lead plaintiff in Wood v. Grayson, challenging the 2004 Kentucky marriage amendment.

Edwina and I have been together 25 years, but cannot legally marry in Kentucky.

We've always said we didn't know what year we'd get married, but we knew what day — May 7, because that's our real anniversary. It's the day in 1988 when we moved into our first apartment in Old Louisville. It was also Derby Day, and I'm pleased to report that the winner that day was a filly.

This year, we appreciated the symbolism as the state of Delaware passed its marriage bill on our 25th anniversary. Seven weeks later, we read the full text of both U.S. Supreme Court decisions to see what they had said about us and people like us.

Depending on how the Defense of Marriage Act decision is implemented by various federal agencies, there may come a time when it makes good practical sense for us to drive to another state and get married. Or it may be better to wait until the law changes in Kentucky. We don't yet know.

Meanwhile, what is our status here and now? Not legally. That part is pretty clear. But socially. How should our neighbors and co-workers and people we see around town think of us?

I hope they will see us the way we see ourselves — as a married couple. There is precedence for this in American law and tradition. Historically, most states recognized common-law marriage. Kentucky did so until 1852.

Common-law marriage had four elements: capacity, agreement, cohabitation and holding out.

Like any marriage, a common-law marriage could only take place between parties with the capacity to enter into a marital contract; for example, they could not be married to anyone else. Agreement meant agreement to be married in the present rather than agreement to marry in the future, as if they were merely engaged. The couple was also required to live together, unlike a formal marriage where one spouse may move to another state to take a new job or care for an aging parent and no one considers them any less married.

Finally, the couple must hold themselves out to the community as spouses and consequently have that reputation among family, friends and neighbors. The marriage could not be a secret, or it was not a marriage.

Edwina and I have easily met the first three requirements for the last 25 years. We each have the capacity to enter into a marital contract. We agreed all those years ago to be married, and have faithfully lived out that commitment. And we have indeed cohabited — first in Louisville, then in New Jersey and now in Lexington.

After renting five apartments over 18 years, we finally bought a house in 2006. We were out to our Realtor, our mortgage company, our insurance agent and every utility company we spoke with throughout the entire process. It was the most out we had ever been.

And yet, when we moved into our house and began meeting the neighbors, we came out to the folks on one side because we thought they'd be accepting, but not to the folks on the other side because we thought they wouldn't. We didn't lie. We just never told them what our relationship was.

That is the reality of being gay in Kentucky. You come out selectively, based on the situation and your perception of the other person's likely reaction.

The holding-out requirement remains the biggest challenge. Still, on balance we are out to most of the people we interact with on a daily basis — at work, at restaurants, at the grocery store.

Common law marriage provides a framework for understanding relationships like ours.

Some people are confused, thinking we want to change our relationship by making a commitment we haven't made before. Far from it. When that day finally comes, we will be taking public vows to affirm the private vows we've already made. So don't call us newlyweds. Call us what we are — an old married couple.

Charlotte Wood of Lexington was the lead plaintiff in Wood v. Grayson, challenging the 2004 Kentucky marriage amendment.

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