John M. Becker

Meet Michael and Robert, Marriage Equality Pioneers

Filed By John M. Becker | July 01, 2014 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Canada, DOMA, Edie Windsor, gay marriage, marriage equality, Marriage Equality USA, Michael Sabatino, New York, Robert Voorheis, same-sex marriage, Supreme Court

sabatino-voorheis-scotus.JPGOne of my absolute favorite things about working for LGBT equality is the fact that when you do this work, you're constantly meeting incredible people and hearing their stories.

Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorheis are two such people. I met the New York couple in March 2013 on the steps of the Supreme Court, where we and thousands of others had gathered to rally for marriage equality while the justices heard oral arguments in the DOMA and Prop. 8 cases.

The two of them held a sign that read "Together 34 years; Married in Canada 10/4/03." They'd clearly had the sign for a long time, as the "34" was attached with tape -- presumably to cover up a "33" (and perhaps even lower numbers?) below. Something drew me to them and I approached, introduced myself, and asked them what brought them to the courthouse steps on that cold day.

They told me that they were there to support their dear friend Edie Windsor, whose wedding to Thea Spyer they helped plan in 2007, but also because they couldn't imagine being anywhere else: Sabatino and Voorheis have been proudly working for relationship recognition for same-sex couples ever since their commitment ceremony back in 1979.

A beautiful new blog post from Marriage Equality USA explains:

After a short courtship, the couple held their first nuptials in the form of a commitment ceremony in 1979. "We knew it wasn't something that was done but it was something that was important to us," says Robert. "Our gay friends couldn't wrap their heads around two men having a ceremony. People in the (LGBT) community were having trouble with it."...

Robert and Michael took another interim step in 2002, becoming the second couple in Westchester County (in New York State) to register as domestic partners. "Domestic partnership was a non-entity," says Robert, "though we were thrilled it was happening. This was the first step to full marriage equality." Never the less, the couple did not treat their domestic partnership as anything other than a legality and held no ceremony to mark the occasion.

Dealing with the palpable discomfort among friends within the LGBT community after their 1979 commitment ceremony would prove to be a valuable experience. The couple encountered substantial resistance among established LGBT organizations during their early participation in the movement for marriage equality.

Michael remembers the pushback in the early years of campaigning for marriage equality. "All of the major organizations were against us. The first inkling that we were getting somewhere was when Massachusetts got it, or maybe when Canada approved marriage. I think that, to us, was one of the turning points," he says, both for them and the established LGBT organizations.

Not long after Ontario legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, Michael and Robert decided to cross the border and get married in the city of Niagara Falls.

wedding_rings.jpgIn 2006, their county executive issued an executive order stating that Westchester County, New York would officially recognize the out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples in the same way it recognizes those of opposite-sex couples. When the anti-gay Alliance Defense Fund sued, Michael and Robert were the defendant-intervenors in Godfrey v. Spano, a Lambda Legal case that successfully ensured that all gay and lesbian New Yorkers who married out of state would have their marriages recognized when they returned home.

Thanks to Michael and Robert's lawsuit, the Canadian marriage of their friends Edie and Thea was recognized by New York State the following year; this recognition enabled Edie to later file her historic suit against the federal government challenging the Defense of Marriage Act.

Michael and Robert also played a pivotal role in founding the freedom-to-marry group Marriage Equality USA.

There's much, much more to this incredible couple's story, and I hope you'll head over to Marriage Equality USA's blog to check out the rest.

I'm so grateful for trailblazing couples like Michael and Robert who've worked for marriage equality long before it became the popular thing to do. It's because of their efforts -- and those of thousands of other unsung heroes all across the country -- that we are where we are today.

Photo by John Becker.

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