Couples denied marriage licenses
Four months have passed since Florida voters approved the marriage amendment — defining the institution as only between a man and woman — and although its impact hasn’t been felt directly by the majority of couples living in the state, many continue to demonstrate what they consider a denial of basic rights.
Twenty same-sex couples first met in downtown Fort Myers on Valentine’s Day 2003 to submit marriage applications to the Lee County Clerk of Courts. They are denied but return annually hoping that one day the ban will be repealed.
Couple participation has varied from year to year, and media coverage has all but vanished since the inaugural year when every television station filmed their story, but on Friday the couples turned once again. Robert Leopold and Bob Schneider were one of seven couples that visited the clerk at 10 a.m.
They handed out carnations to staff, took a number and waited to be called by one of the clerks.
“They’ve been through it so many times. They smiled and said we are sorry at this time the State of Florida doesn’t issue licenses to same sex couples,” said Leopold. “They always say we are terribly sorry, there is no attitude.”
Last November 62 percent of voters approved Amendment 2. Although three statutes already prohibited same-sex marriage, supporters of the amendment insisted that it could be overturned by the courts unless permanently ingrained in the Florida Constitution.
Steve Filizzi, pastor of St. John the Apostle Metropolitan Community Church, said the language of the amendment prevented the state from creating an equivalent institution such as civil unions. California also passed its own marriage amendment last November, but thousands of same-sex couples turned out to protest as a result.
“There is no right of marriage that can be given to gay couples as long as Amendment 2 stands,” said Filizzi.
In 2000 the U.S. Census Bureau began recording information on gay and lesbian couples. According to the Gay and Lesbian Atlas, published by the Urban Institute, the Cape Coral-Fort Myers metropolitan area has one of the highest concentrations of same-sex couples in the state. According to Filizzi, a large majority of gay couples settle in Southwest Florida after they retire.
“It is where everyone comes to retire and same-sex couples come here to retire; it has a larger percentage than other parts of the country,” he said.
Retirement is what drew Schneider and Leopold to Southwest Florida. For the past 34 years they’ve had to live secretly as a same-sex couple yet relocating to Lee County afforded them the chance to be open. Before retirement Schneider had lived in Illinois but worked as a public school teacher in Wisconsin.
“We moved from north to south for retirement and it’s made big changes in our lives, and I don’t have to keep it a secret anymore,” said Schneider.
Leopold explained that Schneider was able to separate his working life in Wisconsin from his private life in Illinois, but the precariousness of being “outed” at any time never faded.
Cape Coral residents Margaret Kelly and Cindy Koenig met in North Carolina and moved together to Southwest Florida. They’ve been a couple for 15 years and said their discontentment with Amendment 2 comes from a denial of basic rights.
“I’ve gotten to the point now, post-amendment, where my biggest issue is the right to bury, not the right marry,” said Kelly. “We can’t bury each other and make funeral arrangements.”
Under Florida law the right to bury is reserved for “next of kin,” meaning that a partner’s family is responsible. For many same-sex couples, the families aren’t accepting of their lifestyle.
Koenig described one story where a gay man living in Cape Coral spent more than a week in the morgue because his family had disowned him. Neither his partner nor children under the age of 18 were able to make the funeral arrangements. While the family later made the arrangements, Koenig said it was a traumatic ordeal for the children.
Fifteen years ago Leopold said he had a similar situation when he was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder and prostate. At the time he was self-employed and thought his insurance would cover the costs, but the following year his premiums doubled and then tripled.
“Let’s say in a perfect world, if we were married, I would have been on his insurance and there would be no question and all of those bills would be paid,” said Leopold.
The couple also is concerned about burial rights. Leopold said even though they have rewritten their living wills three times a judge can still overturn the clauses if one of them passes away.
St. John’s Apostle Church once held a memorial for man who wished to be cremated but a dispute over his arrangements led to a service with an empty urn — a secret they were hesitant to share until now. The church is one of a handful across Southwest Florida that welcomes openly gay members in its cream concrete building with turquoise trim, set off by the line of palm trees on McGregor Boulevard.
Many same-sex couples consider their cause the Civil Rights Movement of this century. Less than 40 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court granted the right of miscegenation or interracial unions to Americans of various races and ethnicities. Before then it was illegal for a white man and African American woman to get married.
“There was more opposition to mixed marriage than there is to gay marriage now,” said Koenig, who added that it’s left up to the courts to settle these injustices. “People that know me and know that I’m gay don’t care, they have a face and it’s hard to hate a face.”
Leopold said he believes public mentality over same-sex couples is changing, especially among the younger generation which is more liberal with their ideas. He was shocked after being approached by three neighbors who knew the couple was gay and invited them to dinner.
“They don’t view it with the same eyes that their parents or grandparents do,” said Schneider.