The Love List


Southern Pride: 6 Atlanta Members of the LGBTQ Community Reflect on Love's New Era

PEOPLE, OCT15Jess Graves

Words: Katherine Michalak

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of marriage equality, finally legalizing same-gender unions. Millions of committed partners could now enjoy all the rights and privileges they deserved. Here, the reflections of prominent Southern members of the LGBTQ community on what marriage, equality and commitment mean to them in a victorious new era for love in all its many forms.

As true of most American teenagers, my introduction to Shakespeare began in middle school. Just a sampling here and there to start … some famous quotations, memorable acts from the major plays, a selection of sonnets in the poetry unit. Nothing too aggressive. It was during this obligatory common curriculum that I first read Sonnet 116.

I’m sure many classmates glazed over the poem, filing it away as an example to be regurgitated onto a test paper when queried about quatrains, couplets and iambic pentameter. But I devoured 116, struck by it’s tenderly pragmatic tone amidst so many other flowery idyllic verses swirling through the textbooks.

Those words stayed with me, lodged in my brain as a weighty balance to the sappy song lyrics accompanying adolescent angst and college romances. The lines murmured in my subconscious when friends began to marry and wedding weekends dotted my agenda. I frequently offered up a Sonnet 116 recitation as a toast to happy couples, never failing to grow misty-eyed as I uttered the familiar rhymes.

Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

I met my future husband at one such wedding weekend. At an intimate gathering in rural Vermont, we were seated together at the reception of mutual friends. I lived in Manhattan at the time and he, a Detroit native, had recently been transferred to Atlanta. We connected instantly, started dating long distance, and became engaged about 6 months later.

Our friends and family delighted in the union, remarking jovially that the whirlwind courtship fit our personalities and celebrated our commitment. Despite the brevity of our relationship and the vast differences in our backgrounds, no one uttered a single voice of dissension. When we married in 2000, we exchanged token gifts the night before the wedding — he gave me elegant earrings and I presented to him a watch engraved on the back with simply “Sonnet 116”. Even now, I reflect on 116 as a reminder of the natural ebb and flow in every relationship and, at the times I most want to mutiny, the words urge me to consider all the storms we’ve weathered. 

Ultimately, Sonnet 116 echoes a timeless sentiment about marriage - that we reach for a partner on this life journey, longing to connect with each other fully, honoring differences, learning from strengths and weaknesses.

Once all the passions and idealism fades, that partner remains with us on deck ready to enjoy the sea breezes or secure a life preserver. Sure, sometimes we jump ship, dock the schooner or hurl ourselves overboard, but generally speaking, at some time in our lives we’ll drop an anchor for love. 

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of marriage equality, finally legalizing a same-gender union for millions of committed partners. Partners that had ‘look[ed] on tempests’ for decades, clinging to each other tightly, could now enjoy all the rights and privileges they deserved. I wept as I viewed the news coverage, overcome with pride for our nation and joy for those freed by the legislation. 

A mere 48 hours later, my husband and I attended Chef Art Smith’s 101 Gay Weddings celebration at the InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta, also the location of Chef Art’s acclaimed Southern Art and Bourbon Bar. A wedding extravaganza for 101 same-sex couples, this event bestowed a sophisticated ceremony and luxurious reception to lucky social media campaign winners -- and featured some of the top chefs in the South bringing their best food and drink to toast the couples with a hearty exclamation of “Love WINS!”

Once again, I found myself crying happy tears most of the day and, this time, I caught my husband welling up at certain moments -- particularly as the MLB’s Billy Bean officiated and we noted the jubilant kiss of a decorated soldier exchanging rings. I nudged him at one point, offering a tissue, and he took it, then grabbed my hand and whispered, “Do you feel the energy here? This is truly incredible, isn’t it?” The entire venue radiated love -- blissful, exuberant, fervent, dedicated L-O-V-E. 

Driving home, I confessed to my husband that I couldn’t say for sure whether or not I’d felt like that on our own wedding day. He looked at me confused, until I clarified that we’d had zero obstacles on our way to the altar. All we’d ever heard about our own union were commendations that we’re “perfectly matched” and “equally yoked”. No one had ever protested my right to choose him, and I wondered aloud hypothetically how it would have impacted our lives if we’d experienced a struggle to unite in matrimony. 

That question tingling in my heart, I decided to ask a few local friends and colleagues to express their feelings about having the freedom to marry whomever they want -- I asked them to try to tell me how it feels to have that burden diminished.

Tender of the Bar, One Flew South restaurant

"To Love is life. To know that love has been understood and respected nation wide is an amazing thing. Marriage being respected on different levels and granted with government eyes is like the Stevie Wonder song “Ribbon in the Sky” and I'm blessed to be alive to witness nuptials  and ribbons in the sky for many. 

I share the lyrics of Stevie Wonder’s 'Ribbon in the Sky' … one of my favorites.
Oh so long for this night I prayed
That a star would guide you my way
To share with me this special day
Where a ribbon's in the sky for our love
If allowed may I touch your hand
And if pleased may I once again
So that you too will understand
There's a ribbon in the sky for our love
This is not a coincidence
And far more than a lucky chance
But what is that was always meant
Is our ribbon in the sky for our love, love
We can't lose with God on our side
We'll find strength in each tear we cry
From now on it will be you and I
And our ribbon in the sky
Ribbon in the sky
A ribbon in the sky for our love" 

Founder Executive/Artistic Director, Serenbe Playhouse

"In a few years people are going to look back and think how silly it was that Marriage Equality was even a thing... the same way that it's hard to believe there was a time when segregation existed and women couldn't vote. [The SCOTUS decision] was cornerstone in American history and one that I will remember forever. Although I haven't found time to actively look for a husband with my career, it's something that as a hopeless romantic I one day long for ... and how amazing that it's now something I can do anywhere and have recognized nationally and not just in certain states! So, yes now I can get married in the Redneck Riviera that is Panama City Beach (my favorite place on earth AND nobody can say a damn thing about it!) Reception to follow at the world famous Tiki Bar of course... I guess I should start an application process for this hubby?" 

Founder & Editorial Director of Equally Wed

"I was on the SCOTUS blog following the case closely on June 26, 2015. Every second that ticked by was a moment I let out another slow breath, waiting. I report on marriage equality in my work — I run a wedding magazine for LGBTQ couples called Equally Wed [], which for the past six years has naturally been a political engine as well, covering the ins and outs on marriage equality. And we still are, for there are still court battles in this country as well as other countries. 

I was stunned when the decision came through that we'd won. I paused for only one full pregnant moment to enjoy … we were victorious, the tears pushed out like fish bowls in my eyes, but didn't spill over. I had work to do to get my story out. I even beat George Takei with my featured article on Equally Wed's Facebook page (luckily I'd written it the night before, preparing for the win).

Once I'd shared it in all the right places, I was busy chatting with my friends on social media when my wife walked into my office. She clearly had no idea. I'd forgotten to say anything to her in the midst of my busy-ness to tell our community, and I felt so silly and wrong! I stood up and we kissed. Then we decided to shut down our computers and head out to a long lunch to celebrate. We ordered bubbly and told the server [the news update] — he brought us an even nicer bottle of bubbly and told us about his sister and her partner and how he was going to call to congratulate them … and we were just on cloud nine. We were having a MOMENT.

Our online magazine is small in the grand scheme of media, but large in that we're serving a small community; we have 70,000 monthly visitors. We launched six years ago to give LGBTQ couples more visibility because, at that time, traditional wedding magazines were not honoring our types of couples … Now they are, and it is lovely to see. We've served our purpose in helping people see how love is love and we deserve to be recognized equally, as well as teaching wedding professionals the intrinsic nuances of working with LGBTQ couples.

My partner and I have had two weddings — one in Georgia in 2009 and one in New York, the state where we legally married in 2011 — and we have twin sons. In Georgia, where we reside, my wife had to legally adopt our own children. She had to pay a lot of money to do this. In Georgia, I had to stand before a judge to take her last name (though I still use mine professionally). Everywhere we travel, we have to carry thick paperwork to make sure we aren't prevented from all going together into a hospital, to make sure we can each make decisions for our children, to make tons of other decisions that heterosexual married couples take for granted. Now that our New York marriage is legally recognized in Georgia, my wife and I can breathe a little easier. So we had most of our legal protections intact, but we have had to pay through the nose for them. 

What changes now for us is that society will hopefully now start looking at us more as equals. I'm aware we've earned more allies in the last 20 years than ever before. But now we have marriage equality on the books. I feel so validated. Like our love and commitment is just as valued and respected as that of a hetero couple."

Celebrity Chef, Award-Winning Cookbook Author, Humanitarian & Philanthropist. Executive Chef and Co-Owner of several American restaurants, including Atlanta’s Southern Art and Bourbon Bar

Chef Smith responded directly to Sonnet 116:

“'Oh no! its an ever fixed mark …' 

Love is the center of every great passion-filled moment whether personal, vocational or cultural. To deny it is to not allow a person to breath…  to not experience life's great actions [which]  sustain place and heart. To define love is to limit its universal force to join others [and] to do good. 

For a world without love is a world without soul.

Let's not define it, let's experience for ourselves and share."

CNN News Editor, GLAAD Atlanta Leadership Council Member

"No longer a topic of concern in 'the land of the free and home of the brave.' The free land is now just that. Not all issues have been cured but we no longer have a select few promise lands (states) to determine the right to say 'I DO.'  
We the People were created equally. Now every state 'from sea to shining sea' erases the pain and hardship from our hearts. It is a joyous feeling to know I can now say marriage … goodbye ‘gay’ marriage. As a child, I always dreamt of my wedding, oh that big white cake, the rings and the two prince’s standing before whoever shall be present. But little did I know as that child that was not an option. Now as an adult who fully understands society and now the catalyst of change, courtesy of the courts in 2015, I can be man and man in my home state of Georgia because it was always on my mind. It doesn’t have to a midnight train to Georgia in fear. Our train can ride the rails in the sunny blue skies, proudly, with the freedom bells ringing." 

CEO & Founder, Spotted Blue Agency

"The day marriage equality came to pass in the U.S. far more was gained than the 1,138 rights and benefits attached [to the legislation]. This was a rebirth of patriotism and gave us a sense of being welcomed into American society as true citizens. We weren't fighting to justify our love, or even for a church wedding … we fought for rights protecting us as a family. 

Six years ago, we faced one of our biggest challenges as cancer threatened Mark’s life. We were lucky our families and medical care team accepted our union; we did not have to deal with the additional adversity so many other couples have faced. I was able to be his advocate and make critical medical and financial decisions on his behalf. Thankfully, we were able to battle the cancer as a team and now he’s in full remission. 

This summer, we decided to celebrate our union in a public forum at the 101 Gay Weddings in Atlanta because we felt our love story needed to be shared— hopefully helping to change hearts and minds. We have fervently fought for our rights by serving on various boards in honor of the many soldiers, both men and women, who died seeking equality for themselves. They died by the hand of bigots, or from suicide, or AIDS, or drug/alcohol abuse — reasons symptomatic of a society living in fear.  Hence, we felt a responsibility attached to this great day to go as public as we could to help celebrate not only the rights gained but also to celebrate the countless lives lost. 

Our hope as we look towards the future is that the focus shifts to the authenticity of love and family and away from misguided perception about what love and family should look like. A white picket fence and 2.5 children does not define all of America — this is a melting pot where grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors and friends comprise 'family'. It takes a village to nurture a healthy society and we are part of it."