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January 08, 2014 News » Cover Story

Love. 

Though the battle over same-sex marriage continues, the motivation for Utah couples hasn't changed

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In the moments after federal Judge Robert Shelby struck down Utah’s law barring same-sex marriage Dec. 20, the reaction was explosive.

For supporters, it was an outpouring of joy.

“If they were to take another [marriage equality] poll like they did back in 2004, it would be completely different,” said a jubilant Daniel Musto moments after wedding his longtime partner. “Just seeing all the love people have for one another here, how could you deny it?”

Conservatives, however, responded with head-exploding outrage.

Eagle Forum leader Gayle Ruzicka registered her “disgust” with the marriages, and conservative activist and author Candace Salima opined on Twitter that “Surely the heavens must be weeping.”

At the Salt Lake County Government Center on Monday, Dec. 23, the line of excited couples seeking marriage licenses wrapped around two floors. Equality advocates had warned couples that they might have only a few hours to get their licenses; if a judge granted the state its request for a stay, it would put a freeze on further same-sex marriages.

But as historic as the occasion was, the couples themselves were not so different from straight couples in their motivations for being wed.

In fact, had the haters met some of those who were lined up that Monday, they would have found people who fundamentally fit the mold of Utah couples: People raised to believe in commitment, looking to start families—or looking to keep whole the families they already had.

Sure, the county building was not exactly the reception hall, wardhouse gymnasium or temple of a typical Utah marriage ceremony. Hundreds of couples waited in line, many with their children in strollers. Volunteer clergy filled the lobby of the building, next to tables stocked with coffee and donuts. Walking between the impromptu ceremonies, you’d catch snippets from officiants’ addresses, like “May each day be as precious as the first day you fell in love.” A hallway down from the cheers and commotion, a Zen priestess quietly married a lesbian couple. In the lobby, one priest pumped her arm in the air after reciting, “by the power of the state of Utah, I pronounce you spouses for life!”

The scene was chaotic, joyful, anxious, loud and, well, very gay, but it also hammered home the fact that for these couples, the day wasn’t really about politics or making a statement. For them, it was a day they’d only dreamed of, a moment to finally solidify years-long commitments and to seal their rights as a couple—rights that would allow them to protect their families, to visit loved ones in the hospital, to share benefits, and, above all else, to finally be a married couple.

But since Utah successfully convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to pass Jan. 6 a halt on same-sex marriages while the high court deliberates on the issues, these hundreds of couples now exist in legal limbo. Some fear that if the Supreme Court or the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidates Shelby’s ruling, all the rights and privileges of these marriages could be dissolved.

Here are just a few stories of those couples’ stories, of what they gained that day—and what they now stand to lose, depending on the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Duane Jennings & Brian Benington

Dapper and dashing in matching purple shirts, Duane Jennings and Brian Benington were easy to pick out in the line where, they proudly noted, they were the 104th couple.

The friendship and love between the two men charted an unusual path, rooted in the LDS faith they both grew up in.

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Benington first met Jennings when he was quite young; Jennings’ LDS missionary companion helped convert Benington’s family to the faith while proselytizing in South Africa.

In the decades that followed, Benington married and had several children before separating from his wife and later reconnecting with Jennings.

The couple has been together for nine years, and marriage has often been a topic of discussion. For both men, though they are no longer church-going, being able to wed means the realization of values they were raised with that they’ve never given up on.

“I was raised in a very traditional LDS family, and as I came out, it was, like, ‘Well, I still want to be with someone and commit my whole life to them,’ ” Jennings said.

These values were not lost on their families; Benington’s grown son cried on the phone when he heard his father was getting married, and as the two men were being interviewed by City Weekly, Benington’s daughter was rushing to the county building to act as their witness.

“People need to understand that we have values. Many people don’t think we do, but marriage is one way of holding that up,” Benington said. “I had to tell my parents I may not be a proper Latter-day Saint anymore, but all the values I was raised with are still what I live my life by.”

Bryan Turner & Kayla Salvatori

Perhaps one of the most unique couples to take advantage of the historic day was actually a pairing of a man and a woman.

Kayla Salvatori identifies her authentic gender as that of a woman. She’s been transitioning from male to female, so, ironically, it took a court decision legalizing gay marriage for the couple to be wed as man and wife.

“He’s straight, so it’s different and not everyone gets it,” Salvatori said. “But you fall in love with the person and not the body, so we’re lucky.”

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Bryan Turner and Salvatori have been together for more than eight years, since meeting on MySpace, of all places. For their first date, Turner, who lived in Richfield, met Salvatori, who hails from Salt Lake County, at a gas station in Panguitch before they drove back to Richfield to do some stargazing.

“I wasn’t used to the stars being so bright, being from the Salt Lake area, and he was all, like, ‘Look at the stars, they are as beautiful as your eyes,’” Salvatori said with a laugh.

While the social-media site hasn’t quite stood the test of time, the couple’s love has. They say they’ve felt nothing but support, even from Turner’s family, whom Salvatori describes affectionately as “super LDS.” She said she hopes more people will see the good that’s come of the day and try to accept the LGBT couples and families around them.

“How can you deny love and deny all the happy looks on everyone’s faces and all the families that are now complete?” Salvatori said. “That’s got to wake some people up.”

Megan Gowers & Kayla Porter

The lady whose hair Megan Gowers was cutting Dec. 20 will likely always remember exactly when she heard that same-sex marriage had been deemed legal in Utah.

After hearing the news, Kayla Porter started trying to track down her girlfriend to tell her the news. She eventually left her work early and interrupted Gowers cutting a customer’s hair.

Porter introduced herself to the lady whose hair Gowers was cutting and broke the news to them both.

“It was awesome,” Gowers said.

The two have been together since meeting on a camping trip in Southern Utah a year ago, and got engaged two months ago. Before the ruling changed things, they had plans to travel to Seattle to be married.

Surrounded by family, including plenty of stoked LDS kin, the couple said their vows and were wed near the entrance of the county building. The goofy grins on the couple only buoyed the applause, hugs and tears of witnessing family. As the reverend who officiated their marriage walked away, she turned to a friend to say, “How much fun am I having!”

And for Gowers and Porter, the fun is just beginning.

Heather & Jax Collins

Wearing a lily-white wedding dress and holding a bouquet of roses and a bag packed with snacks and Powerade, Heather Collins had been camped outside the county building since 3 a.m on that chilly Monday morning. Needless to say, she and Jax were pretty excited for the doors to open at 6 a.m.—two hours earlier than usual—for the rush of newlyweds-to-be.

When asked how long the couple has been together, the simultaneous answers of “five years” from Heather and “six” from Jax was cause for some mock indignation from Heather.

“How come you don’t know how long we’ve been together?” she asks.

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Heather recounted their first storybook encounter at local bar the Paper Moon this way:

“Yeah, we totally met at a bar, and I was really cool, and was, like, ‘Hey, good looking, we should dance,’ and we did—and that’s how it happened.”

“Yeah, sorta like that,” Jax said with a laugh.

Jax says she knows there will always be hostility from some; she says she’s been punched in the face simply for being gay. But there’s something to be said about having equality in spite of the rancor that still lingers in the community.

“We walk around every day, and we know that we’re different,” Jax said. They know that some people who see them together “don’t like it,” she said. “So that won’t change for us. The thing that will change is we can say ‘we’re just like you.’ ”

“Yup, and we’ll have the license to prove it,” Heather said, beaming.

Melissa & Dawnn Chatwin

After their marriage was completed at 9:15 a.m., as other couples were expecting a court decision that might have stopped the marriages at any moment, the Chatwins were finally able to relax, with license in hand.

“After all the excitement from being here the whole night, now I can finally breathe,” Dawnn said.

The couple had friends save a spot in line the night prior while they arranged for someone to watch their 5-month-old son.

As part of the first wave of married couples that morning, the Chatwins were still rocking between the joy and bliss of marriage and the shock and awe of same-sex marriage being legal in Utah. Asked their thoughts on Utah being the 18th state to allow same-sex marriage, their simultaneous response was simply, “weird.”

For them, it was a weird relief, as it finally gave them equal privileges when it comes to raising their child.

Prior to getting married, only Melissa, the biological mother, had rights.

“Since we have a baby together, it is so scary thinking she can’t take him to the hospital if I’m not there because she’s not legally his mother,” Melissa said.

While the couple did find Utah’s (temporary) spot as the 18th state to allow gay marriage somewhat surprising given the local culture, they said that their personal experience has been mostly positive, receiving lots of support from family and friends.

“There’s more support here than not,” Dawnn said.

They say that people all over are just becoming more accepting, including Melissa’s Baptist grandmother.

“Even though she knows we’ll go to hell, she’s still OK with us as people,” Melissa said with a laugh.

Barbara Christensen & Melanie Hansen

While many courtships started at clubs, bars or in the workplace, Barbara Christensen and Melanie Hansen met on a court—the racquetball courts at the Marv Jenson Recreation Center in South Jordan.

“We were pretty competitive, but it was also just for fun and exercise,” Hansen said. “Then we just became friends and figured out life together.”

The couple staked out their spot in line with their 21-month-old son, Kaden, in tow. Kaden, having spent hours in line in the hallway of a county government center, was struggling to keep still.

Kaden, whom Hansen gave birth to, is not the first child she’s considered immediate family. In a previous relationship, her partner was the biological mother. The two eventually separated, and without having been officially married, Hansen had no right to the child she had helped raise as an equal parent.

It’s a part of her story she doesn’t like to dwell on.

“History is history, but I learned a lot from it,” Hansen said. “It’s motivated me to move forward, and helped me learn how much rights really mean to protect people.”

Same-sex marriage not being legal, Hansen said, is “not going to stop people from having families.”

Shane Atkinson & Darrell Whatcott

At 7:30 a.m. Dec. 23, Shane Atkinson and Darrell Whatcott found themselves near the end of the line. They had been caught off guard and hadn’t staked out a spot at the county building the night before, as other couples had; like most Utahns, they hadn’t expected same-sex marriage to happen in Utah.

“Not without the help of federal troops!” Atkinson joked.

Atkinson and Whatcott had long considered themselves married, having been together for the past 28 years. The couple met when Atkinson was a lab teaching assistant for a college engineering class that Whatcott taught.

“Our first date was at Hire’s, we had root-beer floats,” Whatcott said. “You know, traditional Utah thing.”

The couple had planned to be married out of state in the spring to reap federal health-care benefits now available under the Affordable Care Act, but with marriages suddenly legal in Utah, the couple decided to tie the knot in their home state.

“Now we have the legal and the health benefits we are entitled to,” Whatcott said. “I don’t know how many thousands we’ve spent on lawyers, just trying to set up trusts and trying to get some of the basics that you get with a marriage license.”

Rusty James & Melvin Nimer

In their matching baby-blue sweaters, Rusty James and Melvin Nimer drew reporters to them like moths to a flame.

Like others, the couple were caught up in the excitement of the moment, ecstatic about the recognition of their right to marry.

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And for James, 35, being able to have a say in the health-care decisions of his soon-to-be husband, the 65-year-old Nimer, is hugely important.

“If something happens to him, I don’t have to worry,” James said. “I can take care of him and know that he’ll be taken care of.”

Nimer fondly recalled the couple’s first rendezvous at Club Try-Angles where, he said with a grin, James “kept stalking me until I fell in love with him.” The couple has been inseparable for the 6 1/2 years since.

For Nimer—a board member of the gay caucus group Utah Log Cabin Republicans and the treasurer of the Salt Lake County GOP—the day was momentous politically as well as personally.

He said he hopes same-sex marriage will provide a lesson to fellow conservatives about being consistent when it comes to advocating against big government.

“True conservatives want government out of their lives as much as possible,” Nimer says. “A conservative wants everyone treated equally, but most of them are lost when their definition of ‘everyone treated equally’ means everyone like them, instead of all people. We’re trying to teach conservatives how to be true conservatives.”

Daniel Musto & Christopher Johns

Daniel Musto and Christopher Johns were wed in the lobby of the building, with their ceremony officiated by Johns’ brother, surrounded by smiling, teary-eyed family members, including a young girl armed with an iPad, busily Skyping the union to family from out of state.

Interviewed after being married for all of five minutes, Musto and Johns had no complaints about the married life.

“It’s amazing,” Johns said. “It feels like something I didn’t even know I could dream to have come true.”

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The couple first met after being set up on a blind dinner date by friends. It wasn’t love at first sight.

“I hated him at first,” Musto said with a grin.

But their love grew; the couple had been together eight years before their wedding day.

For Musto, the fact that the bang of a judge’s gavel could bring marriage equality to the state was surprising, but was something he had long wished for.

“I have been praying and praying, and I just couldn’t be happier about it,” Musto said. “We’re finally being validated for the love we have for one another in the eyes of the state. Our love for one another hasn’t changed, but now it’s official: I can say this man is my husband.”

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