As the news broke on TV that same-sex marriage would become legal in Maryland, Chris Calvert turned to his partner, Jeff Splitstoser, who was sitting next to him on the couch at their Wheaton home, and proposed. Splitstoser replied, “of course,” and the couple were married on March 22, 2013, the day before their 20th anniversary.
Calvert, 50, remembers when marriage equality was a far cry from the realities of growing up “in a culture that taught you that you were different, not normal.”
He even recalled watching a futuristic movie in his 10th-grade science class that showed the seeming impossibility of two men getting married.
So when same-sex marriage appeared on the ballot on Nov. 6, 2012, as a referendum, Calvert didn’t think it would pass. The General Assembly had already passed a bill requiring Maryland to perform and recognize same-sex civil marriages and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) had signed it into law. But opponents gathered enough signatures to bring the law to popular vote by petition. Maryland residents upheld the law with a 52.4 percent vote in favor.
Including Utah, where same-sex marriage recently was legalized by court decision, 18 states and the Washington, D.C., allow it.
The first same-sex marriage in Maryland took place in Baltimore on Jan. 1, 2013, when Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake performed the marriage of Jim Scales and Bill Tasker.
Scales, who works in the mayor’s office, said he and Tasker emerged from the ceremony to a large gathering of the gay community greeting them with roses and congratulations.
“It just was great to make history and let everybody know that it can be done. I never thought it would be done in my lifetime,” Scales said.
It’s unclear how many same-sex couples have married in Maryland in the last year, since the state doesn’t differentiate marriages by gender in its records, according to the Clerk of the Circuit Court’s office, which keeps marriage records.
Equality Maryland Executive Director Carrie Evans said implementation of the law has gone smoothly and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act by the U.S. Supreme Court in June makes legal issues, like filing joint taxes, easier.
Scales and Tasker, who have been together for 37 years, said being married hasn’t changed their relationship. But Scales said there’s a sense of relief every time he writes Tasker’s name down next to “spouse.”
Scales and Tasker had a holy union ceremony on their 20th anniversary, but “even though it was very nice, I didn’t feel like it was the experience I was looking for,” Tasker said.
“I feel kind of freer,” he said. “I can now be the same person at work that I am home.”
In March, the couple had a joint celebration with Tasker’s nieces, Jennifer and Lynn Creamer. Jennifer had previously been married to a man, whose last name she had kept. So when she and Lynn married, Jennifer dropped her ex-husband’s last name to take Lynn’s.
After 18 years together, the Creamers got married at the Baltimore County Courthouse on Jan. 18, 2013, but held the celebration in March for the great-nieces and -nephews who couldn’t make it to the courthouse ceremony, because “they wanted to be a part of history,” Lynn said.
During the March celebration, they had another ceremony, where their great-nieces and -nephews gave them away as they said vows again before an ordained minister, who was also the party’s D.J.
More than 100 extended family members and friends came to the sports-themed reception to celebrate the marriages. Jennifer and Lynn exchanged Super Bowl rings and guests wore sports jerseys.
The two couples also emerged from a closet together dancing to the song “I’m Coming Out,” by Diana Ross.
Calvert and Splitstoser also opted for a courthouse ceremony, in Rockville. The ceremony was low-key — in fact, the couple hasn’t even told their parents about it.
“There were crickets” from both sides of the family when the law passed in Maryland, meaning no one in the family talked about it. Although both Calvert and Splitstosers’ families treat the spouses like family, they don’t treat them like spouses. Calvert’s parents still send them separate Christmas cards, to the same address.
“We lived in that time when people were coming out in droves, but people were getting beat up for it,” Splitstoser, 51, said.
Once, in college, Splitstoser was headed to a gay bar with a friend, Michael, in Milwaukee when a car of drunk guys pulled up beside them and started harassing them and calling them names. They drove away, stopped and started to back up again. Splitstoser told Michael “we’d better run,” and they darted down an alley. The car followed them and Michael yelled “duck!” just before Splitstoser felt the rush of a baseball bat over his head.
As same-sex couples are finally beginning to enjoy equal rights, these remain gasps of fresh air in the struggle against a legacy of exclusion and discrimination.
But as an archeologist, Splitstoser knows that the idea of relationships and marriage among same-sex couples is not new.
Some Native American cultures even recognized gender differently, he said, throwing off base the idea of defining marriage with gender. They believed in a physical and a spiritual gender that were not always the same. Someone who identified physically as a man, but spiritually as a woman, could marry a man.
Splitstoser was an active Army officer from 1984 to 1990, during the days of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.
“It was a lot of hiding,” he said.
He could have lost his job when, following the death of a former partner, the partner’s parents began calling him at work over legal issues. The couple had shared an apartment, but no legal rights, so although Splitstoser owned most of the possessions in the apartment, the parents legally inherited half of everything in it.
After that experience, Calvert and Splitstoser set up a complex series of accounts and trusts to protect themselves financially the same way a married couple would be protected by default.
“After being together for 20 years, (getting married) was just really a formality for us. We just wanted the legal protection,” Calvert said.
Before same-sex marriage, if a couple shared a house and one person died, the surviving partner would have to buy half of the house back, whereas, normally, a spouse would have full ownership. The federal Defense of Marriage Act was repealed in June on a case in which a woman inherited an estate from her female spouse, but was required to pay $360,000 in estate taxes on it after being denied tax exemption for surviving spouses.
For Calvert and Splitstoser, the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act represented an even bigger landmark than marriage in Maryland. Now, the federal government recognizes their marriage and Calvert can receive military benefits as a spouse.
Calvert believes the repeal catalyzed a lot of changes that had been stifled for years by taking the question of same-sex beyond emotional arguments to a legal level, where it could be evaluated on fundamental fairness. Now that people are beginning to view it in that light, Calvert thinks that progress will continue at a faster pace.
Seeing equal rights slowly take hold, Calvert can afford a mindset he couldn’t imagine growing up — one of “total equality and nothing else will do,” he said.