Just Married
Same-sex couples are getting married in NJ – legally
By Terri Akman

An excited crowd packed the Scottish Rite Theater one Friday night in late October, but the audience wasn’t watching a concert or musical. These folks were witnessing history. Ten same-sex couples took the stage at the Collingswood venue, one after the other, and legally tied the knot.

“It’s always a blast to marry somebody, but this was different because these are people who never thought they would be allowed to marry,” says Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, who performed all 10 ceremonies. “It added a whole different layer – just really, really special. When we pronounced a couple married, the whole place would erupt. It was like our football team won the championship.”

When Governor Chris Christie announced he would abandon his challenge of a judge’s October ruling allowing same-sex marriages, couples who had waited for decades to marry wanted to do so quickly. “We had a flurry of activity,” says Cass Duffey, Collingswood director of community development. “The Scottish Rite Theater was picturesque and accommodated all the couples’ friends and family. Each ceremony was personal and done individually. There was a table full of champagne for each couple.”

First up were Mark Henderson, 49 and Charles Dowdy Jr., 48, with their kids Xavier, 13; Sekai, 9; and Addison, 5, by their sides. The couple met and fell in love in 1998 and had a civil union in 2006. But a legal wedding and all the benefits that brings – they say that was just a dream they never imagined would really come true.

Joined by their children Xavier, Sekai and Addison, Charles Dowdy Jr. (left) and Mark Henderson (right) were the first couple to be married during a ceremony at the Scottish Rite Theater

Joined by their children Xavier, Sekai and Addison, Charles Dowdy Jr. (left) and Mark Henderson (right) were the first couple to be married during a ceremony at the Scottish Rite Theater

“It was surreal,” says Henderson. “I really didn’t believe it until I actually got the marriage certificate. In this political climate, I was nervous they were going to come back and say, ‘Oops, we changed our minds.’”

For Henderson, the marriage meant far more than just a legal document. “It wasn’t that we wanted to be married because we wanted to be like straight people,” he says. “We were happy to know our family is now recognized like any other family. Before, we had to go to attorneys to get the legal paperwork to make sure if anything was to happen to either of us, the kids would be okay.”

The couple has had their share of hurdles to clear, including the process of adopting their children. “The first agency was willing to take our money, but they weren’t thrilled about helping a gay couple adopt an infant,” recalls Henderson. “The second agency went out of business, but we were the very last adoption. Xavier was a month old when we got him in 2000.”

Henderson, the youngest of 10 kids, and Dowdy, the oldest of four, knew that one child wouldn’t be enough. When Xavier was 3, they started the process again, this time through the state.

“We were approached by a college student who already had a child and was pregnant,” he remembers. “She said, ‘You guys are doing such a great job with your oldest son. I was wondering if you’d adopt my child.’”

Amazingly, four years later, the pair was approached again, this time by the daughter of a family friend who couldn’t afford to keep her child. Addison’s adoption completed the family. Yet because they weren’t married, Henderson became the legal parent of Xavier and Addison, while Dowdy is legally Sekai’s dad. The couple’s next order of business is to complete the adoption process, so all of the kids will legally belong to both of them.

“The kids were so proud and happy when we got married,” Henderson says. “They knew our struggle and knew what we were fighting for, and it was a sense of relief. When the ceremony was over, we all hugged in a huge embrace. That hug was symbolic of what we had to go through for the last 16 years. Now because we have that piece of paper, we know we’re next of kin, we can go to the hospital and make decisions, we can buy a house and not have to worry if something happens to the other person. We wanted to be married because we wanted the 1,038 benefits straight people get. We were entitled to zero.”

“Being married has lots of legal consequences under both state and federal law,” explains Perry Dane, professor of law at Rutgers-Camden. “Most of these legal consequences clearly benefit the married couple, such as inheritance rights, decision-making in medical emergencies, health insurance opportunities, the marital privilege in court, tax advantages with respect to joint filing, exemption from the federal estate tax and many others.

“Some legal consequences of marriage arguably disadvantage married couples,” he adds. “For example, same-sex married couples are now subject to the restrictions imposed by federal anti-nepotism laws. Some legal consequences are more complicated. For example, same-sex married couples, like all married couples, need to go through a formal divorce process to dissolve their legal relationship.”

But Maley says the new law is a positive for everybody. “It’s important that my neighbor next door is able to get everything he’s entitled to, that he can have the same rights and be comfortable in his home and can provide for his family,” he says. “When you talk to these couples, they talk about the legal, real stuff.”

About the same time, Jane Hix, 64, and Daphne Goldman, 53, were getting married by Voorhees Mayor Mike Mignogna. The pair met as law students in 1985 and several times during their 28-year relationship, the Haddon Heights couple took whatever steps were available to legalize their union. That included a domestic partnership and civil unions in both Vermont (the first state to offer them in 2000) and New Jersey.

“Whenever there was anything that let us have some kind of legal recognition or legal rights, Jane and I did that,” says Goldman. “It was really important to us to be treated much like anybody else. This is all about getting support from society, not about the way I feel about Jane. We built a life together for a very long time, but finally, the law is on our side.

“We’re not going to have to worry anymore that, God forbid, one of us is in the hospital and some doctor is going to say, ‘Who are you? You don’t have the right to find out what’s going on.’ For years, whenever we would travel we would carry a healthcare power of attorney with us, because if something would happen and we would need to make decisions for one another, we needed to know some doctor in some emergency room was going to give us the right to do that.”

Not sure they’d ever be able to legally marry, the pair invited family and friends to witness their New Jersey civil union in 2007. “It was a big deal,” says Goldman. “We’d been together for 22 years at that point. It was a very emotional day. I come from a Jewish tradition in which you stand under a chuppah to get married. A friend created a huge one that was over the dance floor, and we had the ceremony with all of our family and friends under it.

“We also had a very small chuppah my mother had made when my sister got married. It included a tablecloth her great grandmother made by hand back in Russia. My sister and her husband got married under that, and my brother and his wife got married under it. We had our civil union under the same chuppah years and years later with our family and friends present. Then last week we were actually able to get married, and finally have an official say to us, ‘Under the authority vested in me, you are now wife and wife.’ It was just incredible.”

December 2013
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