Flexing her knuckles, a light catches the jewels in the band on Stacy Stephens’ left hand’s third finger. The ring is an old symbol for an ordinary aspect of the American Dream: Marriage. But this particular ring doesn’t stand for an old-fashioned idea.
Instead, for Stacy, this ring stands for a barrier crossed.
Stacy, 42, remembers the day well. May 9, 2015 was the day Stacy and her partner Christina, 37, got their marriage license from the St. Louis County courthouse when certain counties in Missouri agreed to allow same-sex marriages before the federal ruling.
“We had waited for this moment our whole lives. Eighteen years. We couldn’t wait to go down there,” she said. “It was amazing. It was just so amazing to know that finally we were going to get to do what we had always talked about doing.”
But getting married before the official federal ruling has allowed for loopholes in the system. Because of these loopholes, there are new problems for the legally married couple.
Stacy was told by lawyer after lawyer that because she and her partner were married before the federal ruling, when only certain counties in Missouri allowed it, Christina would not be able to take her last name just yet. She was advised by her lawyer to return to a courthouse and get remarried, so her partner Christina would get her last name immediately.
“I’m still pissed off,” Stacy said. “I just wish they would have told me it would be this difficult.”
This would just cause further complications for the couple while they have already waited so long. Having to get another marriage license and start all over would just force them to spend more money on this. “They said how the laws are written, they would have to go in and change or adjust them. I just don’t understand it. The only thing I’m getting is why should it matter?” Stacy said.
Every lawyer has told the couple that if they would have waited until the federal ruling passed they wouldn’t be having issues. Stacy argues that no one told her that. She has tried contacting the governor’s office, who then tells her to contact the Social Security office. The Social Security office said they would send out paperwork for her to fill out to get approved for a name change. The office failed to send out the forms, resulting in Stacy having to contact them several times. “To have that excitement just ripped from us over something as stupid as this, it’s just frustrating,” she said.
Encountering a problem that seems at times both integral to one’s identity and seemingly unchangeable represents only one headache for the couple. Another concerns a milestone for many couples: children.
“When we first got together we talked about getting married and having kids. We never knew if we would actually be able to one day, but we always had kids names picked out.”
Zack was one of those names. It is now the name they call down the hallway for their now 5-year-old son. Through a sperm donor, the couple was able to have Zack. “[The sperm donor process] was a roller coaster for me. When you want something so bad like that, it can be tough,” Stacy said.
What makes the situation worse is that for five years now, Stacy has not been recognized as the legal parent of Zack, because she isn’t the mother who birthed him. “Lawyers keep saying they’re going to help with that too. One told me I had to track down the donor and have him sign over the rights. It’s so aggravating. He’s my son,” she said.
Lawyers have even joked with Stacy that she should have just signed her name on the birth certificate because it could have been seen as unisex. For their next child, Stacy says she is heavily considering it.
“What pisses me off the most about this is just like with our marriage issues, no one told us we would have to go through all of this. At this point I might as well wait until we have another kid and just adopt both of them together,” she said.
The fear that sits in the back of Stacy’s mind is the fate of their son if something would happen to Christina. “It pisses me off just to think about because I just know someone would fight me about it. They would deny me my own son,” she said.
Xaveria McMichael, public relations director for Spectrum, Ball State’s LGBTQ+ organization, said that this is just one problem their community faces with their children. Another roadblock with adoption many gay parents face is not being allowed to adopt a child because of personal beliefs of the biological parents themselves.
“Couples will often get turned away, that clearly qualify, for no reason,” Xaviera said.
The laws protecting the rights of same-sex couples that would like to adopt children are different from state to state; some are clear and others are vague. Thomson Reuter, a mass media company and information firm, has a section on Legal Issues for Gay and Lesbian adoption that says that states like Florida prohibit “homosexuals” from adopting within the state. According to statistics by LifeLong Adoptions, most states decide whether gay adoption is legal by the case’s judge. Other states that have harsh ruling against same-sex adoption include Mississippi and Utah.
The idea of being turned away is evident to Stacy. “Living this life, you’re always going to run into people that aren’t going to like it, so I have always thought that I should be married, have a steady job, to show them, you know. It just looks better,” she said.
Only 23 states have laws protecting individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s Movement Advancement Project. Of those 23, three of them do not protect gender identity. Xaveria said LGBTQ+ individuals are constantly being denied housing because the landlord or business owning the property isn’t personally comfortable with the individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Xaviera said that she personally knows many people that have experienced this discrimination.
Samantha Mayotte, president of Call to Action, a LGBTQ+ rights group at Ball State, said that this is evident even on Ball State’s campus. Samantha said she has known someone denied housing once the landlord saw her and her partner.
Turning away possible residents because of their sexuality or gender identity is still federally legal. *Rita Smith, a 20-year-old student, who understands her views aren’t as publicly shared, agrees with landlords that exercise their right to prohibit same-sex couples from living in their properties.
“There shouldn’t be a law that forces a landlord to let people he doesn’t care for live there,” she said. “How do they know it’s discrimination? That community always wants to feel like someone is doing them wrong.”
Rita also feels that an employer should be able to fire someone who is gay or transgender if it interfered with his or her job. In the majority of the states, this can still happen.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, only 20 states provide non-discrimination employment protection for both sexual orientation and gender identity, while four provide laws that do not allow discrimination for only sexual orientation, failing to include gender identity. Xaviera said there is not yet a grand law that will shield the LGBTQ+ community from this nationwide. “People can still be fired in most states for their sexual orientation. There is no federal protection against that,” she said.
The fight for equal rights is not over. The ruling for same-sex marriage is just one triumph in a list of obstacles this community has been forced to jump through. Stacy’s story is just one of many. As the Millennial generation works to keep pushing conservative America into a nation that has rights for everyone, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, it can be hard to get laws passed to do so. Xaviera says that organizations like Spectrum work to create awareness.
“There have been several bills that have been presented but not passed,” Xaveria said. “Our organization writes letters to senators, urges everyone to educate themselves, and finds ways they can help,” she said.
Stacy said while these acts are nice, they haven’t gotten the community anywhere yet. “At the end of the day, what’s a letter really going to do? We need to go higher. We have to take this to Obama,” she said.
President Obama, who Stacy applauds for being one the only open-minded politicians today, is living up to just that. This past Tuesday, November. 10, The White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the president has been discussing passing a bill that would work to abolish discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity across the nation.
“I am just so disgusted with the government after all of this. They act like they’re for equality but obviously they’re not completely. I hope that one day we can just be no different than a straight couple,” Stacy said.
*Rita’s name was changed to protect her identity