Feature | Gay Bride: Looking for a legal marriage, Utah same-sex couples are California-bound. 

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Catherine Healey proposed to Janet Cope in the couple’s back yard on May 13, 2008. She recalls feeling jittery as she dropped to one knee, ready to pop the question. “I thought she might say it was a dumb idea.” Instead, Healey’s partner of 13 years grew quiet and teary. Moments later, Cope said, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Before their summer wedding in San Francisco, Healey, 41, and Cope, 43, joked that they planned to register for wedding gifts at Home Depot. Reflecting more seriously, they say if they were to create an actual gift registry, it would invite well-wishers to donate to either the Utah AIDS Foundation or the Humane Society.

Martha Amundsen and Lisa Altman feel that posting their wedding announcement in The Salt Lake Tribune put a human face on the contentious concept of same-sex marriage. They say their legal marriage performed in California hasn’t inherently changed their relationship, but “it gives it dignity and respect,” Amundsen says. “Our being visible allowed people to start conversations about it.”

Once the paid announcement hit print, the pair received “tons of e-mails” along with phone calls and letters. “They were all nice. People who are upset aren’t saying they are upset to me,” Amundsen says.

Dressed in matching champagne-hued silk tunics and pants, Amundsen and Altman, both 42, were legally married on June 27, 2008. Their ceremony coincided with Gay Pride weekend. The San Francisco City Hall was “a buzz of energy and excitement with 300 couples getting married that day,” Amundsen recalls. “Because the rotunda is so huge, they could have many ceremonies going on in different places. Whenever one ended, people cheered and hollered.”

Healey and Cope traveled to San Francisco on Aug. 13, where Healey’s aunt witnessed their ceremony. Healey’s sister wanted to throw a wedding shower, but Healey invited her to just bring a side dish to a celebratory barbecue in Utah later in the fall. Cope says that the reality that she was able to look Healey in the eye and say, “I do,” was “validating and heartfelt, and brings together where we have been for 13 years.”

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The issue of same-sex marriage centers on concepts as basic and lasting as the desire to find a partner for life, the hope of building a joint future with emotional and economic security and the longing to create a family—just as generations of heterosexuals have always done. While opponents feel that the very idea of gay marriage violates the basic definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman and is both legally and morally wrong, proponents say the opportunity for gay couples to marry legally is a fundamental right, denied for too long. The couples in this story feel that pursuing a legal marriage validates the sincere, authentic relationships they have forged with their significant others. From their perspective, this is a logical step forward in their lives.

And, like thousands of others across the United States, these couples have headed to California, or plan to go there, for a legal marriage ceremony. Their wedding plans unfolded against the backdrop of Proposition 8, which would amend the state constitution (as Utahns did in 2004) to read that marriage is legal only between a man and a woman. California voters will decide on Nov. 4. Were the Election Day measure to pass, it would nullify a May 15, 2008, decision of the California Supreme Court that struck down all previous prohibitions against same-sex marriage. The court on that day ordered the state to start recognizing same-sex marriages on June 17.

Since that day, a steady stream of gay couples, whose unions would not be recognized in most other states, has married in California. UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy projects that about half of California’s more than 100,000 gay and lesbian couples will wed during the next three years and that 68,000 out-of-state couples will travel to California to marry.

Fervent support for Proposition 8 has poured into California from across the country. The Roman Catholic Church is officially opposed to same-sex marriage as are most evangelical Christian sects and conservative Protestant denominations. Among the most vested opponents to same-sex marriage is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From its world headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City, church leaders have said the church’s position on marriage between a man and a woman is “unequivocal.”

The church is directing proponents of Proposition 8 to the Web site ProtectMarriage.com According to the site, Mormons worldwide have kicked in about $5 million in fighting same-sex marriage in California. The orchestrated LDS Church effort was enough to outrage Bruce Bastian, co-founder of WordPerfect, who lives in Orem. A gay philanthropist and ex-Mormon whose foundation strongly supports human rights and arts organizations, Bastian recently donated $1 million to fight Proposition 8. “The LDS Church has no business [sticking] their big nose in something that’s a legal matter, not a religious matter,” Bastian told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Meanwhile, as the political and culture wars about same-sex unions go on, many Utah gay and lesbian couples are taking advantage of a legal leg-up while they can.

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The Dating and Mating Game
Before a mutual friend introduced Catherine Healey and Janet Cope at a Sunday breakfast, Healey had just come off a short and fiery relationship that ended badly. She planned to stay single, continue her career as a police dispatcher and finish her master’s degree. To Healey’s surprise, Cope approached her at a birthday party and whispered, “Girl, you are making me crazy,” before walking away. Healey phoned Cope that night inviting her to meet for coffee the next day, where she presented her with a long-stemmed pink rose.

Their date lasted from 11 a.m. until after they watched the sunset that night. They talked for hours about a variety of topics, including how they each wanted to be moms and the ways they might accomplish parenthood. “We talked about adoption and foreign adoption,” Healey remembers. “That day kind of sealed the deal.”

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Cope’s relationship with her current partner was dissolving. Their home was for sale. She and Healey both eventually moved in with a group of friends. Two months after they met, they traveled to Maui for a trip they now consider to be their honeymoon.

Altman and Amundsen, both corporate lawyers in Salt Lake County, met in a professional setting. Altman was serving as moral support for a lawsuit involving Amundsen’s client. After corresponding online and dating for a year, Altman sold her Victorian-era home in the Avenues neighborhood and moved into Amundsen’s Sugar House home. Today, the couple is out of the closet at all social and professional occasions. Still, Altman says, “Every day of the year, every hour of the day, you still have to come out. By knowing us, people will know that this supposedly ‘gay agenda’ means going to work every day, paying your taxes and washing the dogs. Just living our lives like any other couple wants to live theirs.”

State Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, and his partner Mark Barr, plan to marry in California in the future. They will then hold a reception in Utah. “For us Utah couples, being able to marry legally in California is a symbolic display of recognition that demonstrates our relationships are on equal footing with other heterosexual relationships,” McCoy says. “The ability to marry demonstrates a respect and appreciation for same-sex relationships even if they aren’t recognized under the law in Utah. That begins the process of recognition that is the first step down the road to ultimate acceptance.”

Amundsen and Altman feel they share “a lot of sameness.” They are both successful in their law practices and share “an odd sense of humor where we find the same sort of things funny that no one else would even see as humorous.” Altman says she is more uptight; Amundsen more laid back. “I’m the one who paints the borders while Martha does the middle,” Altman says.

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Like the majority of straight couples heading toward marriage, the issue of children—especially how to actually produce them—weighs heavily on many gay couples. Four years into her relationship with Cope, Healey underwent two artificial inseminations without getting pregnant. “We decided we needed a dad,” Cope says. “We wanted the child to have an active relationship with his father.” For three years, as they talked with and considered specific fatherhood candidates, they asked themselves what each person’s dedication to the relationship would be. “It actually became almost stressful,” Cope recalls.

As their friend, Bob Elton, watered his garden and prepared for a barbecue one summer evening, he told Cope and Healey that being a father was something he had dreamed about his whole life. The 54-year-old gay man who rode in rodeos and worked for Utah Valley Hospital as a radiology director had tears in his eyes as he said, “I would love to be a dad.”

That emotional moment was in stark contrast to the hectic schedule that followed. There were repeated efforts at artificial insemination, using Elton’s donated sperm, at University Hospital. “I got discouraged a lot—every time I took a pregnancy test and the results were negative,” Cope recalls. Finally, after three years of medical intervention, Cope became pregnant.

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Not long after the relationship of Healey, Cope and Elton began, Michael Tragakis met Robert Elton at a dance. Tragakis, a psychologist, felt the part-time rodeo cowboy was accomplished and impressive. When Tragakis and Elton began a relationship, Elton, Cope and Healey were already pursuing parenthood. “They had it all figured out. For me, it was a little bit bewildering and mystifying—but exciting,” Tragakis says.

Before he met Elton, Tragakis had written off having children. When he came out as gay in college, he felt “a little bit of a grieving process” with the understanding that he would never be a father. After college, he spent a year volunteering at a Mexican orphanage, partly to spend time with children because he felt sure he would never have his own.

Cope and Elton’s son, Alexander Robert Elton, was born in February 2001. But tragedy struck just three months later, when Elton died in a horseback-riding accident. At the cemetery after the funeral, Tragakis, who had been Elton’s partner for eight months, lifted Cope’s and Healey’s spirits by saying, “I want to be part of Alex’s life if that is all right with you.”

Tragakis, 38, recalls that “When Bob was there, I felt like I was going to be kind of a side figure, a helper to Bob. But after he died, it became clear to me that I wanted to step in as central father figure. Part of it was my love for Bob, part of it was for his son, Alex, and part of it was for me, in my heart.

“When Alex was born, that innate love you have for a baby made it no longer a question.” He says he felt very lucky in the situation, and that “while all parents have their struggles and ups and downs, this was a real blessing for me.”

To distinguish between Alex’s two fathers, Cope and Healey refer to Elton as “Daddy Bob” and to Tragakis as “Papa.” Cope says of their son’s biological father, “it’s like his presence never left us. Bob really wanted three or more kids–‘a quiverful of arrows.’”

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Cope, Healey and Tragakis settled into a co-parenting arrangement that resembled that of many divorced straight couples. Alex alternates between their two homes in Salt Lake City and the Millcreek area in Salt Lake County. “I really love Cathy and Janet and feel we all have a positive commitment to parenting,” Tragakis says.

A year after Alex’s birth, he recalls the three of them were sitting together when the two women asked him about the possibility of having another child. “My initial reaction was real excitement, but I don’t think I gave my answer right then.” Later, Tragakis polled his own parents and friends on the topic. He had previously wondered about the possibility of having a biological child during Healey’s pregnancy “when it was a huge deal and so exciting, and we wanted to make sure everything went well.”

All three soon agreed it would be great if Alex had a brother or sister. They decided to pursue artificial insemination using Tragakis’ sperm. Tragakis found his initial experience in having his sperm tested, “very daunting for a male—gay or otherwise. You get this report on your sperm, what shape they are in and how fast they move. I thought, ‘I hope my guys can work.’ You give one sample, then they freeze that, then you give another sample six months later, and they use the frozen one.”

When neither of the first two tries was a success, for the third attempt, Cope used a syringe to inseminate Healey at home. “I’m a nurse—I can do what they do,” she says.

At the beginning of her second pregnancy, Healey soon became violently ill, “sicker than I have ever been in my life.” Three months later, Cope and Tragakis accompanied her to an ultrasound appointment. Healey was carrying twins.

“I was flabbergasted,” Tragakis says. “It was so seriously out of the realm of anything I ever imagined.”

Cope and Tragakis were at the courthouse pursuing guardianship papers five months later when Healey summoned them to the delivery room. Zachary and Avery, a boy and a girl, were premature, born in December 2003. They weighed 3 pounds, 13 ounces and 3 pounds, 3 ounces respectively. Born with underdeveloped lungs, Avery spent the first four months of her life in the hospital.

“She was more wire and tube than baby. We almost lost her,” Tragakis says. Following that initial siege, Avery has continued to experience health problems, but the family has settled into a comfortable joint-custody mode.

How They Make It Work
All three children sleep at Tragakis’s house on Wednesday and Friday nights. He stays home with them on Thursdays during the day, and on weekend days, too. “Sometimes, when Cathy and I are home, we will do three-kid days,” he says. And sometimes they spread the three kids around so the parents can have one-on-one time with each.

“With three adults trying to make decisions, there are a lot of e-mails,” Healey says. “The kids try Mommy, then Mama, then Daddy.” Alex has four sets of grandparents and the twins have three. The nontraditional relationship can occasionally raise questions of logic.

“They would only let me list two parents on our Hogle Zoo pass, even after I explained that we are a three-parent family,” Healey says. Before Cope’s guardianship was complete, she couldn’t visit her own children in the hospital without Healey or Tragakis. They say that establishing the legal documents to protect their family financially and medically, such as durable health care and durable power of attorney–have cost a fortune, but they were worth it.

Now that 7-year-old Alex is in school, Tragakis says, “It really is clear that although gay parenting is more common, it is still alternate. Part of me feels some worry and fear about what it will be like for these kids to grow up.” He says he hears stories from Alex at school, “and there is already a real pressure to have a certain kind of family that is the majority with one mom and one dad in one house. He’ll say ‘I wish you guys lived in the same house’ without fully understanding that Cathy and Janet are in the relationship, and I am not. There is a complexity to it that they will have to negotiate–but I don’t think it’s harmful.”

Tragakis’ partner, John Apel, is 55 and works as a psychiatric nurse. He was previously married to a woman. His two children are in their 20s. “John’s relationship with my young children is something that is developing for him,” Tragakis says, “because he has done this before and felt good about the fact that he had raised his children.” Tragakis, Apel and the children recently traveled to Massachusetts to visit Tragakis’ family. “My two brothers are both straight and married,” Tragakis says. “This visit was the first time I felt I had my place at the table—with a great romantic relationship and three beautiful kids.”

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Tragakis hopes his current relationship will also proceed to a legal marriage. “By the time I came out of the closet in college, I had only experienced a little bit of being heterosexual, because of social pressure. I’ve never had a marriage, which a lot of people have by age 23. Now, I get a little starry-eyed at the idea, and I would like to get married to my partner.”

Cope and Healey took the extra step of marriage in spite of an overwhelming opposition to their relationship in Utah. “They say marriage is for straight people, and we’re not straight,” Healey says. “But you grow up your whole life being excited to marry the person you love. Then, if you are gay, it’s suddenly, ‘No, you can’t.’ Now I can say, ‘This is my wife, Janet,’ in California. In Utah, she’s my roommate.”

They hoped to hold out to marry in Utah, “But now, we just hope that we are alive long enough to renew our vows here. We may be using walkers, but we’ll be first in line.”

While these couples are committed to the idea of legal same-sex marriage, the vast majority of Utah voters decided otherwise, by amending the state Constitution to drive that point home. “The law in Utah, which is based on the Constitution, states that marriage is only between a man and a woman,” says Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. “If a [same-sex] couple goes to California to marry, and then comes back here, should they sue for the state to recognize their marriage here, we would have to defend the Constitution and say that the state would not recognize that marriage.”

Some constitutional scholars, however, argue that the U.S. Constitution requires states to recognize legal contracts from other states under its “fair faith and credit” clause. In the case of a marriage—a legal contract—performed in California, Utah might be legally bound to recognize those unions.

Earlier this year, Shurtleff petitioned the California Supreme Court, requesting the state wait until after the Nov. 4 election to legalize the marriages. The court denied the petition. On Aug. 4, California Attorney General Jerry Brown released a statement that the thousands of gay and lesbian weddings conducted since the state Supreme Court legalized the unions on May 15 will probably remain valid (in California). With so many legal theories and educated guesses swirling around the issue, it’s difficult to know how the marriages will eventually be viewed under the law.

But legal interpretation of their relationship hasn’t deterred many couples, including lawyers Martha Amundsen and Lisa Altman. “Our relationship on a personal level will not be affected whatsoever,” Amundsen says. “We are committed to each other and will continue to live as any married couple lives as we have before we were legally married. And we’ll continue to do so regardless of the outcome of Proposition 8.”

In his life beyond the Legislature, 38-year-old Scott McCoy is also an attorney. “I hope someday the state of Utah will recognize [same-sex marriage],” he says, adding that the people who marry in California today will go back to their home states. “They will live their lives, and in the course of living their lives, life will happen to them. Some of those relationships will break up. Some will suffer tragedy and one of the partners will become incapacitated or die.” Then the law in those respective states will have to deal with the situation.

“Same-sex marriage is not an issue that Utah is going to be able to hide from forever,” McCoy says. There are real-life issues the state of Utah will be forced to deal with eventually. “A resident California couple will be driving across Utah and get in a car accident. One of them dies and there has to be a distribution of that property. The Utah courts will have to decide whether to treat them as legal strangers or treat them as if they are married. These legal questions will slowly but surely have to be dealt with.

“In a way,” he says, “Utah has tried to build a sandbag wall as high and strong as possible—but I don’t think it is going to be able to keep back the flood.”

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About The Author

Carolyn Campbell

Carolyn Campbell

Campbell has been writing for City Weekly since the 1980s. Her insightful pieces have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists chapters in Utah and Colorado.

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