Born in Guatemala and adopted by two American mothers, 9-year-old Ellie Cooper has grown accustomed to standing out in her predominantly white Christian town of Middlefield, Conn. But now that her parents have gained the right to marry under Connecticut law, she’ll have more in common with her classmates.
“Often people will say, ‘Are you married?’” said one of her mothers, Jane Cooper. “I just want to say yes, and I want for my daughter to have parents who are married.”
And now she can. Earlier this month, Connecticut became the third state to grant marriage rights to gay couples. The Oct. 10 ruling formally went into effect this week after the state Supreme Court voted 4 to 3 in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. In the wake of the vote, Gov. Jodi Rell said that while she disagreed with the decision, she supported the Supreme Court’s right to decide.
“This is a very, very important step forward,” said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Manhattan, New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue. “This does not represent full equality for gay and lesbian American citizens, but it is a step in that direction.”
The Connecticut ruling comes five months after the California Supreme Court voted 4 to 3 to strike down the statewide ban on same-sex marriages, making California and Massachusetts the only other states to perform gay weddings. A day before the May 15 decision, New York Gov. David Paterson directed all New York state agencies to recognize same-sex unions and marriages performed elsewhere.
But couples planning to get married in California after Nov. 4 are waiting on pins and needles for Election Day. In addition to its outsize role in selecting the next president, the state will vote on Proposition 8, which would strike down the same-sex ruling.
“If Proposition 8 does pass it will only affect marriages from that day forward, but it cannot affect the marriage that we have,” said Manhattanite Andrew Tallis, who traveled with his partner David Rosenberg to marry in San Francisco on July 20. “Under American law you cannot make something illegal after the fact,” he added.
The Jewish community is split on the issue of same-sex weddings. The various strains of Orthodox Judaism believe that marriage remains a strictly defined institution between a man and a woman, and that homosexuality is outside the bounds of Jewish law. While the Conservative movement does not officially sanctify gay weddings, it allows individual rabbis to perform such marriages. The Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, recently faced a bruising debate that led it to admit gay rabbinical students and approve gay unions. On the liberal end of Judaism, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements fully support same-sex marriage rights.
Many of Connecticut’s Reform rabbis are excited to take the leap and marry their gay and lesbian congregants.
“It’s about time, and I’m really thrilled,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Bennett, spiritual leader at Temple Sinai in Newington, who signed the “Religious Declaration on Marriage Equality” in 2005. In January, Rabbi Bennett will marry Jane Cooper and her fiancée Fran Rolland.
For Cooper and Rolland, 48 and 58, a civil union just wouldn’t be enough. “The marriage part is a personal, from the heart ‘I love you,’” Rolland said. “And the whole world can know that because you have a marriage certificate.”
Marriage is important legally as well, and will afford them state-level benefits such as tax relief and medical decision rights not available in civil unions.
Within their synagogue, Cooper and Rolland find only support for these rights.
“There are several other gay families that are part of the synagogue, so if people have bad thoughts they keep it to themselves,” said Rolland, who was raised a Catholic but now serves on multiple committees at Temple Sinai.
“The other thing is — we’re ‘lipstick lesbians’ — so people don’t necessarily know that we’re gay,” Cooper added, referring to feminine lesbians who don’t fit the common stereotype.
Thus far, Rabbi Bennett has performed 10 civil unions in his Reform congregation of 450 families, and he’s thrilled to begin performing weddings.
“I name children on the pulpit for gay and lesbian couples,” Rabbi Bennett said. “I have not heard one negative thing.”
Rabbi Bennett said that he will only marry members of Temple Sinai, regardless of their sexual orientation, because he’d like to know the couple personally. Another Connecticut spiritual leader, Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, said he would probably marry out-of-state couples seeking refuge at his synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford.
Rabbis like Fuchs and Bennett make same-sex couples feel very comfortable in their congregations, yet in the small town of Middlefield the Cooper-Rolland family does feel a bit exotic. But it’s not because they’re lesbians, according to Cooper.
“I think they have more trouble accepting a Jew than a lesbian around here,” she said.
Another Connecticut Jewish couple, CBST members Robin Baslaw and Susan Smith, 54 and 61, also plans to marry and have asked CBST’s Rabbi Kleinbaum to officiate the wedding. In March 2006, Rabbi Kleinbaum performed their Jewish wedding and civil union, complete with chupah, glass-breaking and ketubah, but she will now sanctify their vows in a marriage contract.
“We asked her if we could be her first legal gay wedding,” said Baslaw, who is excited to finally marry her partner of 28 years. “We called her the next day.”
“I’m glad I live in a state that saw this as an opportunity to make something right,” Smith added. “I think that the state of Connecticut basically said, ‘You’re just like everybody else.’”
Both the Baslaw-Smith and Cooper-Rolland couples think that gay marriage succeeded in Connecticut because those people fighting for the law were very persistent and out in the open about their sexual identity.
“People came forward and people could see who gay and lesbian people are,” Smith said. “We’re just very regular, ordinary people.”
Nationwide, couples like the Cooper-Rollands and the Baslaw-Smiths are inspired by California’s progress and hope that California’s law will not be overturned. Since June, couples have been marrying at California synagogues like San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. Located in the heavily gay Castro district, Sha’ar Zahav’s brick exterior features a large rainbow flag and a blue and white banner that reads “Celebrating Marriage Equality.”
Among the earlier San Francisco couples to get married at Sha’ar Zahav were Jeffrey Nebenzahl and Hoa Tran, who each triumphantly crushed cloth-clad glasses on a chilly and foggy Independence Day morning.
“The fact that we are able to get married makes me feel like less of a second-class citizen,” Tran said at a cozy sidewalk café in Castro.
Just two and a half weeks later, New Yorkers Tallis and Rosenberg arrived at Sha’ar Zahav to get married.
“If two adults are not allowed to be recognized legally, it really undercuts their status as a couple,” he said. Back in New York, Tallis is trying to figure out how to file their joint state tax return, with no response from the governor’s office.
“They are as legally married as any people on the planet — when you get married, you’re married,” said Evan Wolfson, a civil rights attorney and director of Freedom to Marry, an organization working to win gay marriage rights worldwide. “Right now there are many people who will discriminate against you and your marriage.”
While Rabbi Kleinbaum agrees that same-sex marriages are a secular civil right, she also believes they are halachically sound.
“The Torah is a dynamic document. We Jews are not biblical literalists,” she said, adding that if we followed the Bible literally, polygamy, sexual slavery and prostitution would all be societal norms. “Surely no one would say that the biblical view of sex should be followed.”
“I really don’t think the Bible takes the case up of two [same-sex] people who genuinely want to commit their lives to each other,” Rabbi Fuchs added.
And in January, that’s exactly what Cooper and Rolland are planning to do. All that’s left to decide are the catering hall, the guest list and their wedding dresses.
“We’re too old,” Cooper said, laughing at the idea of a flowing white bridal gown.
“We’re going to have to wear mother-of-the-bride dresses,” Rolland agreed.