RICHMOND, Va. — Carol Schall was helping her teenage daughter renew her passport when a postal worker filling out the paperwork learned that Schall’s same-sex partner was the girl’s birth mother.
“You’re nothing,” Schall recalls the worker saying as she crossed her name off the form. Schall was stunned.
“I asked myself, ‘Did that really just happen? Did a civil servant carrying out Virginia law really strike me out of my daughter’s life?'”
The April 2012 confrontation and the look of hurt on then-14-year-old Emily’s face, was still on their minds when Schall and Mary Townley decided to join another couple in a federal lawsuit challenging Virginia’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Schall and Townley were married in California in 2008, but the union is not recognized in Virginia.
“That incident was actually emblematic for me of the position the constitutional amendment puts us in,” Schall said in an interview. “Virginia wou ld never recognize me as Emily’s mom until it recognizes me and Mary as married. It’s like I’m a legal stranger to my own family.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Norfolk in July after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to married gay couples and left intact a lower court ruling overturning California’s gay marriage ban. Bostic and London had been denied a marriage license in Norfolk.
Schall, 53, and Townley got involved after responding to an email from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group, soliciting the stories of same-sex couples. The organization found their story compelling, and a lawyer contacted them about challenging Virginia’s 2006 constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage.
“After a conversation, we said we’d be honored,” Townley said in an interview at the couple’s Chesterfield County home. “I had a sense about knowing us as a couple, we were ready for this.”
Seven years ago, Virginians voted 57 percent to 43 percent to approve the gay marriage ban. But Schall and Townley believe the tide is changing. Their view is supported by a Quinnipiac University poll in July that found that 50 percent of registered Virginia voters support same-sex marriage, while 43 percent oppose it. The survey’s margin of error was plus-or-minus 3.1 percentage points.
Despite the unpleasant encounter with the postal worker, Schall and Townley say their overall experience suggests most people are on their side – and those who aren’t often come around after getting to know them.
“We really do experience Virginia as a wonderful place,” Schall said. “We don’t experience any discrimination or judgment from our neighbors.”
Townley, who works with special needs children, recalled becoming friends with a teacher’s aide who initially disapproved of her same-sex relationship but eventually acknowledged that “you are all such a wonderful family.” She said it’s an example of how some people are raised to believe homosexuality is sinful, but “they get to know us and change their minds.”
The conservative Family Foundation of Virginia, however, remains firmly opposed to same-sex marriage.
“The government isn’t in the marriage business to affirm someone’s love life; its interest is to ensure the best interest of children,” the organization’s president, Victoria Cobb, said in an email. “Virginians deserve to be able to continue to have a conversation over the issue of marriage without the courts stifling debate.”
The cost of the lawsuit is being borne by the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which also was behind the effort to overturn California’s gay marriage ban. A separate lawsuit challenging Virginia’s ban was filed by two Shenandoah County couples and the ACLU of Virginia in federal court in Harrisonburg, which is in a different judicial district than Norfo lk. The two lawsuits are proceeding along parallel tracks with preliminary motions, and no hearing has been scheduled in either case.
“Mary and Carol’s story, along with those of countless loving gay and lesbian couples across Virginia, is the reason AFER continues to fight for marriage equality,” said Adam Umhoefer, the organization’s executive director.
The Chesterfield County couple’s story begins like many others – in the workplace. Schall, now a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who specializes in research on teaching autistic children, was working at a private school in Winchester in 1983 when Townley came in for a job interview. Schall said her first impression was that Townley was too delicate for the job.
“Mary walked in and I thought, ‘These kids are going to eat her alive,'” Schall said.
Townley got the job and quickly proved her wrong, Schall said, and the two immediately became friends. They eventually decided to get a town hous e together, and the relationship blossomed from friendship into something more.
“We just began to notice we wanted to hold hands,” Townley said. “There was not an ‘ah-ha’ moment.”
They count 1985 as the start of their relationship as a couple. They had a commitment ceremony in 1996 “with flowers, family, the whole shebang,” Townley said, before taking the relationship a step further with their wedding 12 years later in San Francisco. They knew the marriage wouldn’t be recognized in Virginia, but hoped that would change so they will have the same rights and benefits as other families.
“We want to be married for the happy times,” Schall said. “We need to be married for the sad times.”
She said she and Townley, 52, are not asking for anything special – just equality.
“It’s not special to want to be a family,” she said. “We’re just looking for the same thing everybody else already has.”
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