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Legal love

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Vermont can be a very cold place. I mean, come on, they just experienced an early June frost up there. Feet of snow each winter instead of inches. Days lingering below freezing. Wind chills that skew temperatures to ungodly depths. Mountains towering everywhere, but with such different structure and foliage from ours here in the South. It seems like a foreign place to me. So far "up" there. A spectacular place though, and now very dear to my Southern heart.

This Southern heart started beating deep in the foothills of Kentucky: A barefoot, toe-headed little farm boy taught to say "yes ma'am" and "yes sir." I knew what a switch was, but never saw much of one. I grew up in the love of a huge extended family: Mom and Pa, Clifford, Poppa, Grand Pa, Mamaw and Papaw, Granny and Pa, Mom Robbins and Pap, tons of aunts, uncles and cousins, and even a great-great-grandparent or two. I was baptized into the Providence Church of Christ by Brother Bob Eubanks at age 11. I learned strong family values, love, religion, an appreciation for life and living things. I was a good kid who loved deeply with a tender heart.

My heart was opened wide to true love more than seven years ago. I met the love of my life through the IndyPersonals. I had a cute message from caller number four to return the call and we would get together and meet--standard procedure in the personals world. I was fresh out of a laborious six-year relationship and was so nervous and yet excited. We arranged to meet a couple of weeks later at Ruby Tuesday in Northgate Mall (nice and public) to have a drink.

We met, chatted for hours, fell madly in love and have been together ever since. After being together four and a half years, we had a beautiful ceremony and committed our lives to each other, within a circle of iris blossoms surrounded by our family and friends. We had custom rings made that were perfect. Our friends built a promise bouquet of daisies. We jumped the broom. It was beautiful.

This January we made it even more official. After seven years, we needed to cement this bond as officially and legally as we could. It was a private ceremony, just for us, with a couple of friends and a justice of the peace. We stood together overlooking a lake as snow fell, and committed our love for each other yet again.

However, an organization called The Alliance for Marriage is now lobbying to amend the U.S. Constitution to make all of our efforts to commit our lives together for naught. This alliance of religious-based organizations is lobbying to amend the Constitution with the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). They claim this "simple" amendment will strengthen the degrading ideal of marriage in our country. "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."

So even though we are in love, have been in love for years and want to grow old together, some folks just don't want this love to exist. You see, I am happily married to a man. We had the commitment ceremony for us. The civil union we arranged last January in Vermont was for the government. All we are trying to do is strengthen our bond. To make our love and commitment "not legal" would be truly wrong.

It was serendipitous how it all happened. I was invited to consult with a fellow alternative newspaper in Burlington, Vt. The folks at Seven Days newspaper were great, offering to fly both of us up for a long weekend. I would work for a couple of days in the office and then we both could enjoy the weekend and the spectacular October foliage. They arranged for us to stay in the Sunset Bed and Breakfast in downtown Burlington.

The groom and groom - PHOTO BY DARREN STANHOUSE

In finalizing the travel arrangements, Paula, the paper's publisher, asked if I needed anything else. I assured her that they were being quite generous with inviting me as well as my partner to come up. She responded, "Well, we are the Civil Union State."

I had never given it any thought. I had heard about the law passing up there, but had no idea we as non-Vermonters could participate.

A civil union: Just think, we could be legally married. I hit the Web: www.vtfreetomarry.org. I found all the details we needed. The requirements for the license, a list of justices of the peace and the locations of the clerks of court, were all right there. We located the clerk's office in Burlington and corresponded with several JPs about their schedules.

Everything fell into place. We would fly up Wednesday, I would work Thursday and Friday, the ceremony would be on Saturday and then we'd fly back home on Sunday. Keith Goslant was the JP of choice. He was wonderful. He replied to us with tons of information and sample ceremonies. We later discovered that he was instrumental in pushing the civil union legislation through. What an honor to have him preside over our ceremony.

Then came a day that changed all our lives in some way or another: Sept. 11. We were to fly to Vermont in a month. Could we do that? Could we get on a plane and fly anywhere, especially into the Northeast? We decided it was too much. We revamped the trip to be a road trip at a later date.

So, now the plan was for January. I know, not the ideal time to visit Vermont. But it would be our seven-year anniversary, and having the civil union on that date would be all the better. We planned a weeklong vacation to allow for the driving time. Everyone was so understanding and helpful in rescheduling the plans.

Again, things began to fall into place. We found a wonderful condo to rent downtown since we were now going to be up there for the week: Top floor of the Vermont House offering a stunning view of Lake Champlain and the city below. The courthouse was just across the street on the town square. We went to procure our license from the clerk's office and ended up having an unexpected "swearing-in" at the counter there in the courthouse. We had to attest that all the info provided was correct and that we both understood the commitment we were making. Folks just milled around us as if nothing was going on. We discovered a quaint little flower shop that had our favorite flowers, Star Gazer Lilies, and the perfect little roses. We scurried home with them so they would not freeze.

We felt the trip was meant to be. The code to get into the Vermont House was 8488, my high school graduation year and his. Silly, but so cool. Things happened like that the entire trip. The key to the condo arrived via FedEx the day that we left. We brought just enough spare change from home to feed the parking meter for a week. The flowers cost $66.70, my birth year and his. A business associate and good friend from Boston was able to drive over and be our witness. It was a beautiful ceremony, snow lightly falling, the JP tearing up, our rings freshly buffed and stones reset, champagne to celebrate, just perfect.

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In our government, a marriage is a contract; a legal contract agreed upon by two people to share their legal, financial and life responsibilities. The implication that it can occur only between a man and a woman is strictly religious in origin. At the time that the idea of marriage was created in the religious world, there was no need for government involvement. So to now intermingle the two seems ridiculous. What will our civil union do to damage our country? I will love my partner with or without their approval. We will live together with or without their approval.

One can even look at the economics of it all. We drove 18 hours through seven states and poured more than $1,000 into the Burlington economy, all to legalize our relationship--all to obtain the legal recognition that we deserve as citizens of this country. It's a shame that our own local economy could not have benefited from this great moment in our lives.

It's a shame that the Alliance for Marriage cannot recognize that our hearts and minds are the only truly free things about us. It's a shame that they are wasting all their efforts to undo something that can never be undone in our hearts. They cannot retract my certified license that states that I am married. They cannot take away the pictures, the video, the memories that we will carry with us forever. We will be together long after their call for "change" has faded.

Vermont is a very lovely place. I mean, come on, they are the only state in the union to officially recognize that love knows no rules. They experience open-mindedness and acceptance that warms even the coldest winter day. They share in the joy of two people bonding their lives together and asking for the government to honor and enforce their union. It seems now like such a lovely place. I can't wait to go back. It warms this Southern boy's heart.

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