Waiting for a Prop. 8 ruling, one couple reflects on two years of same-sex marriage

on July 3, 2010

We started at the beginning.

As Kevin Harrigan tells it, he arrived at an apartment building in Noe Valley one Sunday night in March 1987 to pick up his blind date—who wouldn’t answer the door.

“I rang the bell and he didn’t answer,” Harrigan said. “And I was like, OK, maybe he’s not home. And you know what’s it like to find a place to park in Noe Valley on a Sunday? Plus I was a struggling young teacher, I’m thinking, ‘I hope this guy at least is going to take me out to dinner.’” Harrigan laughed. “So anyway, I rang the doorbell again and he didn’t answer. I’m like, gosh, maybe he looked out the window and didn’t like what he saw. Maybe he’s just not decided to open the door. “

But luckily for Joel Preston, Harrigan didn’t let a broken doorbell stop him from that free dinner.

“My parents had given me one of those big college rings with the stone, so I knocked on the glass,” Harrigan said. “I’m tenacious, you know. My Irish was up. And Joel came down the stairs, and he opened the door and he looked very handsome and he was friendly. You know, plus we were both younger, thinner—and blonder.“

“It was March 21st,” continued Harrigan. “That’s the date that we use as our anniversary.”

“One of two dates now that we use as our anniversary,” Preston said, correcting Harrigan in a wry tone.

“Because now we have our wedding anniversary,” Harrigan said, which prompted an amused snort from Preston.

Yes,” Preston said.

“Which I think is great,” Harrigan continued.

“I think we should only have one date to remember,” Preston admitted, rolling his eyes. “Kevin’s convinced we need to remember both.”

“You know, if it means a lovely dinner or a nice little remembrance…” Harrigan said as Preston laughed loudly, shaking his head.

Kevin Harrigan (l) and Joel Preston during their wedding ceremony on Oct. 11, 2008. (Photo courtesy Joel Preston; Photo by Norm Levin)

After 21 years together, Harrigan, now 53, and Preston, 58, were married on October 11, 2008 in Monte Rio, California, a ceremony only made possible by the California Supreme Court’s May, 2008, ruling that same-sex couples could get married. A month later, on November 4, California voters passed Proposition 8 by a margin of 52 to 48 percent, voting to amend the state’s constitution to read that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” California’s ban on gay marriage began again on November 5, 2008. Same-sex marriage had been legal in the state for only six months.

The couple, who now live in Oakland’s Montclair hills, are among the 18,000 same-sex couples who remain legally married in California, at a time when gay couples and their supporters are eagerly awaiting the outcome of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, one of the lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the Proposition 8 victory.

Two same-sex couples filed Perry shortly after the election, claiming the constitutional amendment violates their rights to equal protection under the state constitution. Lawyers Theodore Olsen and David Boies, who argued opposite sides in the landmark case Bush v. Gore in front of the United States Supreme Court in 2000, teamed up to argue that Proposition 8 should be overturned. The trial started on January 11, 2010, and Judge Vaughn Walker heard closing arguments June 16. A ruling is expected this month.

One of the other post-Proposition 8 lawsuits had a more immediate impact on Preston, Harrigan and the 18,000 couples who’d already married. A consolidated case called Strauss v. Horton made its way back to the California Supreme Court. On May 26, 2009, the court upheld Proposition 8, but said the couples who were married in California during the six-month window when same-sex marriage was legal would stay married and enjoy the same benefits under the law as a heterosexual married couple.

Even though Preston and Harrigan’s marriage will remain legal no matter what the judge rules this July, the Proposition 8 trial is meaningful for them. The experience of being legally married for the last two years has changed their lives — sometimes in unexpected ways — and hints at the profound impact that a Perry ruling legalizing same-sex marriage could have for thousands of other Californians. The couple has been involved in the No on 8 campaign, giving both money and time to the cause — it is important to them for others to have the opportunity to experience the happiness and legal rights they share.

***

Kevin Harrigan (l) and Joel Preston at their Guerneville home.

Harrigan is now the superintendent of schools for the Newark Unified School District, and Preston is a self-employed entrepreneur who recently retired from a 30-year career in the philanthropy sector. They invited me up to their summer home near the Russian River in Guerneville, about an hour and a half away from the home they have shared for 19 years in Oakland’s hills. They sat across from each other in their light, airy living room and, as they discussed what the last two years of legal marriage have meant to them, bantered with the ease that comes from knowing and living with someone for over two decades. Preston, the quieter of the two and the self-proclaimed introvert, would thoughtfully ponder a question before deliberately answering—although he usually answered first. Harrigan, meanwhile, expressively punctuated his points, eagerly adding his own thoughts to Preston’s.

That blind date in March 1987 happened within weeks of Preston’s moving to San Francisco as part of a job transfer from Austin, Texas. Originally from Illinois, Preston laughed as he said he didn’t think anyone in San Francisco was actually from San Francisco—until he met Harrigan, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, whose large group of family and friends (his “elephant train,” as he described them, referencing the elephant exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo) quickly adopted the introverted Preston as one of their own.

They moved in together in 1988 and bought their home together right after the Oakland hills fire in 1991. But while they were busy building their lives around the other, marriage never crossed their minds. “It’s just like any other two people meeting and [who] little by little, go from the first date to knowing more and more about each other and figuring out how it all fits together,” Preston explained. “And at some point in the relationship, in the straight world, it’s time for somebody to pop the question. Well, in the gay world that really wasn’t an option in terms of officially popping the question. So you kind of end up in a committed relationship without ever really declaring it in a way. You just kind of end up there.”

While they sat down with their lawyer to create trusts and powers of attorney to protect their rights on the off chance something happened to one of them (a process that is expensive and they said many of their less-wealthy friends couldn’t afford), they never considered having a commitment ceremony prior to the May 2008 ruling. In fact, they said one reason they rejected the thought of having a ceremony was because they saw the institution of marriage as being “screwed up.”

“The concept was, in order to be a legitimate couple, I don’t have to be sanctioned by the traditions of the straight culture,” Harrigan said. “Part of that was a push back to say, ‘I am legitimate in my relationship, I am legitimate in my commitment. I don’t need a social sanction to determine its legitimacy. I can be legitimate in my daily witness of living my life. I can be legitimate by having my partner be an integral part of my life with my family, my friends, and in my professional practice.’ And that’s what legitimizes my relationship, not an institutionalized sanction like marriage. Of course I think also, some of that politically was a response of thinking, ‘Our society is so archaic. We’ll never get to that point.’”

When San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom announced in 2004 that San Francisco’s City Hall would issue marriage certificates, the couple admired Newsom’s decision, but something about it didn’t add up for Preston. “For me, there was a sense that, oh, this is not real,” he said. “Not that it was a stunt or anything, but it’s like, this isn’t going to stand the test of time. It’s fine for San Francisco, but outside the city of San Francisco it’s not really real. It didn’t resonate to me at the time as being legal.”

Preston and Harrigan were not among the 4,000 couples who received marriage licenses between February 12 and March 11, 2004, when the state Supreme Court halted the weddings. In August, 2004, the state Supreme Court nullified the same-sex marriages that had taken place in San Francisco.

But Preston’s thinking about marriage—and about getting married—changed after he heard of the state Supreme Court’s ruling in May 2008 and read the decision online.

“It seemed to suddenly make a big difference,” he said. “I think it’s the first time I’d seen it laid out in black and white why marriage was more than just a right that you might want to have, but that it was an important civil right that was essential to have—whether you decided to exercise it or not. I was just moved by the eloquence of the argument.”

That night, Preston proposed to Harrigan when the busy superintendent returned home from work.

“I said, ‘Did you hear what happened with the Supreme Court?’” Preston said. “He said, ‘Yeah, I heard.’ And I said, ‘So, do you want to get married?'”

“Yeah. I do,” Harrigan replied.

“It was the right thing in that very moment,” Harrigan recalled. “It was 21 years of committed relationship. It was just on a, I don’t know, Tuesday night or Wednesday night coming in from work, hearing about this historical ruling by the court, and simply saying, ‘We now have this right. Let’s exercise it.’”

Preston and Harrigan (center) with their families on their wedding day, Oct. 11, 2008. (Photo courtesy Joel Preston; Photo by Norm Levin)

They planned their ceremony carefully, choosing who would attend—the owners of The Village Inn and Restaurant in Monte Rio graciously kept allowing the couple to expand the guest list beyond the facility’s capacity to accommodate the nearly 120 people who attended the wedding—and who would participate in the service. Harrigan and Preston said their friends and family were excited about them finally being able to get married. Harrigan’s mother helped them plan the ceremony and gave them both away, and the couple’s straight and gay friends traveled from all over the world to share the day with them. Harrigan’s brother and sister and one of Preston’s brothers stood as their witnesses, and Harrigan’s niece Milena, then eight, was the flower girl. Special friends read poetry and excerpts from pieces about marriage, and their friend Heidi gave a homily about the responsibilities and gifts of marriage, centered around a single verse from the gospel of Luke in the New Testament.  

“If you were at our ceremony, it was a phenomenal day. It was an affirmation of our love,” Harrigan said. “We weren’t 25 year-olds hoping it would work. We weren’t young people saying, ‘Let’s give this a try.’”

“We very purposefully planned a thoughtful day, but we didn’t know how inspiring, how moving, how deeply loving the experience of that day would be,” he continued. “People who have attended have told us it was the most beautiful wedding they’ve ever been to.”

The couple has been surprised by how being married has been very different experience for them than just living together as a couple.

“I woke up on the next day and it felt different,” Preston said. “Now I was married. I didn’t expect to feel that different, that changed. Part of it dealt with other people. I could say I was married, or ‘Here is my husband,’ and they knew what that meant. People get that meaning. And there was something affirming about the state of California saying this relationship—it is. It exists. It’s real. I was not expecting the sense of validation.”

Harrigan interrupted him thoughtfully. “It acknowledges that two consenting adults can enter into this level of civil contract with its level of responsibilities, who are willing to hold themselves responsible and believe the other will hold that responsibility.”

“I knew Kevin was with me hell or high water before,” Preston said. “It wasn’t like I was more secure in the relationship with Kevin, but if such a thing can be true, the bond that was there became even firmer, more solid, more unbreakable.”

***

After a lunch of chicken salad with walnuts and apples on their deck high in the trees, our talk turns to Proposition 8 and the civil rights issues it raises, and the conversation becomes more somber. Both Preston and Harrigan leaned back in their chairs, nearly slumping. Their voices lowered and their pauses lengthened between answers as they struggled to explain how the decision had affected their lives.

Preston first got involved in the No-on-8 campaign as a volunteer during the summer of 2008, after he had proposed to Harrigan but before the two were married. When the proposition passed, Preston said he felt a “gut punch.” “I remember just sitting and sobbing, just crying,” he said.

“My first question is really simple: Why are people so afraid?” Harrigan asked quietly. “What is the fear? Why would someone be afraid of Joel and I? I don’t really understand that.”

“I was glad our marriage continued to exist [after the 2009 court ruling],” Preston said. “I don’t know how I would have felt if our marriage had been nullified. But there’s almost a sense of being like a freed slave. I had the right to get married. Lucky me. I happened to make the choice during the short window of time when it was legal, but my brothers and sisters don’t have that right. That hurts. Does it affect me on a day-to-day basis? No. The state of California, the Supreme Court says I am married. But it’s tinged somehow by the fact that other people can’t exercise that same right.”

While Preston said he feels his views have been well-represented in the pro-marriage testimony and lawyers’ arguments offered during the Proposition 8 trial, he knows that, no matter how the judge rules in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the fight will continue, most likely up to the United States Supreme Court. He’s ready to continue the fight, volunteering for the San Francisco LGBT Community Center and the Horizons Foundation.

“I am firmly convinced now that marriage is a civil right. My right to marry whom I choose is a right,” he said. “And it is one of those fundamental natural rights that the state can’t take away.”

“I spent 50-some years not having the right to get married to a man,” Preston continued. “I just didn’t have it. And yet in 2008, I did. And then it was taken away. And that becomes a much bigger deal. To not have a right I never had? Don’t miss it. To not have a right that I once had? That’s a big deal, and it’s wrong.”

The couple says, unequivocally, that they are glad they got married, and they will continue fighting until every other member of the LGBT community has the right to get married, too. “Our lower-case “m” marriage grew stronger when we upper-case “M” got Married,” Preston said.

“And now we have two anniversaries,” Harrigan offered, lightening the mood.

Preston groaned. “And now we have two anniversaries.”

“We have two reasons for special dinners,” Harrigan said. “And two more special days to recognize all the people who have supported us.”

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3 Comments

  1. Sapphocrat on July 3, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    While we haven’t been together nearly as long as Preston and Harrigan, my wife and I have said much the same, many times since our wedding in the summer of 2008: Neither of us expected to feel any differently — about each other, or about life in general — than we did the day before. Nor did we expect to feel that sense of validation. But we did, and we still do. It’s impossible to explain fully to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.

    Beyond this newfound sense of foundation — stability, grounding, security, rooted-ness — there was and is indeed “a sense of being like a freed slave.”

    That feeling, too, is impossible to convey to anyone who hasn’t spent a lifetime assuming that being relegated to the status of “less-than” was the best one could ever expect.

    And while our marriage remains valid (I, too, cannot and do not want to think about the trauma we would have endured otherwise), Prop 8 was indeed a “gut punch,” and has affected our lives profoundly. It never once crossed our minds that we have ours, and those who missed the window of opportunity are on their own; _because_ we are married, we are even more committed to working harder than ever to see the day all our brothers and sisters have the same opportunity — permanently — to marry legally. (Or not, as they choose — but they must be able to make that choice.)

    This was a lovely article — it actually brought me to tears. I thank you for running it, and I thank Preston and Harrigan for sharing their life and experience openly. May they have many more years of happiness — and may we all sustain one another in our shared goal of making that happiness a reality for everyone who wants it.

    The only thing I would change about this piece is the title: This isn’t about “same-sex marriage” — it’s simply “marriage.”

    Beautiful, glorious _marriage_.



  2. Andrew on July 4, 2010 at 10:10 am

    I am touched by this beautiful story, but it raises many questions for me (not directly related to these fine people….)

    If I’m reading all the news articles on this mess correctly, the question is whether or not homosexuals are treated as whatever one needs to be treated as to enjoy equal protection under the law. Now that California has made an absolute spectacle out of marriage, we have homosexuals that are married, and homosexuals that are not allowed to get married. Hasn’t the Supreme Court, in ruling in this way, established two different sides to the same coin that are not treated equally?

    I truly don’t know how to explain my thinking better…and I’m sure I’m being confusing. I just know this whole thing is idiotic, and I’ve stopped trusting a lot of people that have cast their opinions on what they think marriage should be. And since our nation is being totally archaic, I want to be archaic and punch those stupid “defense of marriage people”. And George W. Bush too…..if for nothing else because he CANNOT pronounce the word “nuclear”. Sigh.



  3. Cynthia Gorney on July 5, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    This is a beautifully written and thoughtful interview, LC–probing in a way many of the shorter accounts of gay marriage’s don’t have time to be. Very good way to get us thinking about the ruling to come. Nice work!



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