Numerous Supreme Court watchers have said that having the justices choose not to rule on Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California and allowing the debate to continue democratically state by state would be the best outcome of the case now before the court.
While that scenario might provide Americans more time to get used to the idea of gay and lesbian weddings, it certainly doesn’t take into account the human toll of delaying marriage equality in a place like Mississippi.
For same-sex couples like Crystal Craven and Jessica Powell, it’s a matter of life and death.
Craven, 34, and Powell, 24, caused quite a fuss last month when the local paper in the small town of Laurel, Miss., reported their “Historic Wedding.” Even though gay weddings are not legal in the Magnolia State, the couple wanted to have a public celebration of their commitment, and they were in a hurry to schedule it after Craven was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer a year ago. She wore a white cowboy hat to the ceremony to hide her multiple scars.
The front-page story in the Laurel Leader-Call prompted what the paper’s owner Jim Cegielski described as a “hate-filled” response: Many readers canceled their subscriptions, while dozens made angry calls – including a death threat to staffers – while the newspaper’s Facebook wall was overrun with outraged posts. Cegielski said he’d gotten more comments about this story than any other he’d ever run. One read: “This is what we have to put up with on the world news every night. Never thought I would open my local paper and see such. Insulting!!!”
Soon after Craven and Powell’s ceremony, the newlyweds faced a decision as tough as any a couple might need to make: whether to continue with more chemotherapy or to allow Craven to live out her last days peacefully at home. “Crystal told me she was tired of hurting, tired of being sick and tired of fighting,” Powell told the Leader-Call.
Deciding to forego further treatment, Craven died at her parents’ home, 43 days after she said, “I do.”
Unfortunately, that sad loss was not the end of the story for Powell. Because Mississippi – like all states in the South – provides no relationship protections for same-sex couples, Craven’s parents took control of the service, writing an obituary that referred to Powell as a “special friend” at the end of the list of survivors and not inviting her to the funeral.
Powell posted on Facebook during the service, “I was banned,” adding: “Tell everybody that I love Crystal [but] I can’t come because I would be asked to leave. This is tearin’ me apart. If I pull up, I will go to jail for real.”
Powell was not permitted to attend her wife’s burial, either. “I’m at the laundromat watching,” she posted to her friends from across the street of the Palestine Baptist Church Cemetery while Craven was laid to rest.
When I asked Powell what she thought about those who think it best if the Supreme Court doesn’t decide the case, she emailed me, “I think they should make all states equal. Mississippi is the Bible Belt, and we are discriminated against bad. But people need to realize, for the world to be a better place, (same-sex marriage) needs to happen everywhere. All people need the same rights – no matter gender, race, or religion or what state they live in.”
For many Southerners, like Craven and Powell, there just isn’t time to wait for equal protection to come to Dixie.
Steven Petrow of Hillsborough writes the “Civil Behavior” column for The New York Times and is a former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.