For gay couples in Virginia, deciding whether to marry is no simple question

Debra Guy (left) and Meridith Wolnick had their daughter, Ruby, in 2010, but they’re waiting to get married until it’s legal in Virginia. Photo: Cramer Photo Debra Guy (left) and Meridith Wolnick had their daughter, Ruby, in 2010, but they’re waiting to get married until it’s legal in Virginia. Photo: Cramer Photo

This week marks our first-ever pride issue—just in time for Charlottesville’s Pride Festival this weekend. Check out our other feature stories on what it was like to be gay at CHS in the ’90s, on UVA’s lack of gender-neutral housing for trans students, and on the festival itself.

To wed, or not to wed?

For gay couples in states that don’t allow same-sex unions, it’s a heavy question with major legal implications. In Virginia, many are hoping it will get a lot less complicated soon. The Supreme Court is expected to hear an appeal of the 4th Circuit Court’s overturn of the Commonwealth’s gay marriage ban—one of three federal appeals court decisions that have struck down state same-sex marriage bans in recent months.

But for now, the limbo continues. If you know you want to tie the knot, do you move? Head to California for a wedding vacation and resign yourself to having no legal recognition at home? Or do you wait and hope the law changes?

We asked two couples what they did, and why.

 “It matters because we’re Virginians”

In 2005, Meridith Wolnick and Debra Guy exchanged rings on the beach in North Carolina in a private promise of commitment. “Just us and a seagull or two,” is how Meridith describes it. Their little ceremony followed years of friendship, a four-year hiatus while Meridith traveled the world for work, a reconnection in Washington, D.C., and a budding romance. They were ready to put down roots.

“We actually tried very hard to get out of the state of Virginia, to be honest,” Meridith said. “We were really looking for places to go where we could be a family and it wouldn’t be unusual for me to say, ‘This is my wife.’”

In the mid-2000s, moving for marriage equality meant setting their sights on just a handful of states—California, Oregon, Massachusetts. Then a job came through for Meridith at UVA in 2008, “and we just fell in love with Charlottesville,” she said. “So we’re here.”

And here they’ll stay, even though that means their state considers them roommates with joint bank accounts, as Debra puts it. And even though many of their friends have flown to California or Canada to have legal ceremonies, they both feel strongly that they want to be married in the state where they live.

“It matters because we’re Virginians,” Debra said—she was born and raised here, and now she’s settled here. Consider the question as posed to a straight couple, she said. “Would you go somewhere to get married if when you came home absolutely nothing changed? Your benefits didn’t change, your taxes didn’t change?”

“If you wouldn’t have any custody over your child, any more than you have right now?” Meridith added.

That’s Ruby she’s talking about, the round-cheeked 4-year-old sitting between them in the front window at Splendora’s on the Downtown Mall, swinging her feet and licking gelato off a plastic spoon. Charlottesville was a wonderful place to be a pregnant lesbian couple, Debra and Meridith said, and when Debra gave birth to Ruby at Martha Jefferson Hospital, they were treated like any other new parents. Having a daughter has opened life up in new ways, they said, and it’s an amazing feeling, being a family unit of three. But now they’re more anxious than ever for the law to catch up to their reality.

“One of the things we know marriage will give to us will be my ability to adopt her, because I didn’t carry her,” said Meridith, and for the first time in half an hour of smiling talk, her voice caught. “We have no legal relationship.”

Yes, they have wills, drawn up in Maryland during Debra’s pregnancy, that offer some security. But even though they’re tempted every time another state legalizes gay marriage, they still haven’t gone that far. Whatever legal promise made to them in Connecticut or New Jersey would evaporate once they were home.

“There’s no outside incentive for us to be married elsewhere, other than recognition of our love and commitment to each other, which we already have,” said Meridith. 

And it’s more than that. They don’t begrudge anyone the decision to marry elsewhere, they said, but to them, taking a stand is important. There needs to be pressure in Virginia for there to be change here, said Meridith.

“We sort of are preserving that,” she said, “and saying, ‘Look, there’s inequality among you.’”

They may be progressive poster children, Debra said, “but there are so many people still in the closet, still not out at work, still not out to their families, still worried about getting hurt, getting kicked out of their homes.” They’re holding out for them, too. “It’s such an important issue that affects so many Virginians, not just the ones who are talking about it.”

They were elated when the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Virginia’s gay marriage ban last month, and crushed when the Supreme Court issued a stay of a directive to start allowing marriages pending an appeal.

“We had a tiny wedding party on call with their pressed shirts and pants,” Debra said. “Everyone was ready to go.”

They’ll be ready again. The pair believe change is coming, and will be worth the wait.

To those who point out that they already have a fairly conventional coupled life, who wonder if that should be enough, Meridith and Debra have a very clear reply: Yes, we do, and no, it isn’t.

“We have the house and the kid and the dog and the family,” said Meridith. They pack their lunches in the morning and pay for their Netflix account like everybody else. “It still is important to be married,” she said. “That piece of paper is still very important, because of the rights it conveys.”

“The same worth as anyone else’s”

When Matt Joslyn met Moray Paterson in Edinburgh, Scotland last August, both thought they were in for nothing more than a summer fling. Matt, the executive director of Live Arts, was there for the annual Fringe theater festival; Moray was a local.

“And then, in kind of short order, we really fell in love,” said Matt. “Summer came and went, we both knew we didn’t want to do a long distance relationship, and so we kind of said, ‘See ya, bye.’”

But it wasn’t goodbye. They texted and e-mailed every day after Matt left. Moray headed to Germany for a language study program, and when he ran the Berlin marathon in September, Matt flew there to meet him—just for the weekend. And that was the start of what Matt, with a huge grin and a laugh, called their “ridiculous, world-traveling first-year relationship.”

By December, they were talking about forever.

“We knew that we were either going to go all in, or we were going to be done with it and go back to our own lives,” Matt said. Part of taking the plunge was being clear-eyed about what they wanted, he said. They were both 37. They’d been around the block. Matt had even been married in a civil ceremony before.

“We were so connected on our life philosophy, on what we were looking for, what our core values were,” Matt said.

But he’s quick to acknowledge that they might never have gotten that far if it weren’t for the fact that earlier that year, the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. They weren’t doomed to a visa-juggling future; they knew they could actually marry and settle with some legal rights as a couple at some point.

The conversation was changing in his country, too, said Moray, who shared his side of the story via e-mail from Edinburgh. But it wasn’t changing fast enough.

“We had previously won civil partnerships for same-sex couples in Scotland,” he said, but they ushered in a two-tier system where such unions were second-class, exempt from any religious aspects. “I knew I didn’t want a civil partnership,” he said.

At Christmas, they told their families—both supportive—that they were getting married, and in February, they met in New York City and “spent a week doing every touristy thing,” Matt said. They stayed in a friend’s apartment in the West Village, even had a stag night on Christopher Street—home to the Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 Stonewall riots that sparked the gay rights movement—something Moray said was important to him. He was active in a Scottish LGBT group called “Stonewall Youth” when he was younger, and he felt like things had come full circle for him. “It meant a lot to me that our marriage was of the same worth as anyone else’s,” he said.

In the middle of all of it, they went to the clerk’s office, filled out an application, and came back 24 hours later with a witness, dressed to the nines—a kilt for Moray, a tux for Matt.

Matt Joslyn (left) and Moray Paterson Joslyn read their vows in New York City in February. Photo courtesy Matt Joslyn
Matt Joslyn (left) and Moray Paterson Joslyn read their vows in New York City in February. Photo: Max Kelly

“It’s like a meat counter,” said Matt, with a big crowd of people, each waiting for their number to be called. “Everybody you can imagine,” he said. “Everybody’s happy. It’s probably the happiest place in New York City.”

They had written vows via text message over the course of a week, line by line, back and forth, Moray said. They ended up having to argue with the marriage clerk to be allowed to read them during the ceremony, and he’s glad they did. “It was a good chance to think about what marriage really meant, about good days and bad, not just about fun and good sex,” he said. “Now our promises will be with us for the future.”

Moray went back to work in Scotland with a new last name, and since then, they’ve been crossing the Atlantic by turns. They had their honeymoon in June, spent August in Edinburgh, and are now figuring out what’s next. The same month they tied the knot, Scotland passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage. Where they land permanently depends on where Moray, a health care administrator, can get work.

Two things they agreed on: Neither would have believed a year ago that they’d be married today, and their friends think they’re crazy—but good crazy.

“Meeting Matt and getting married is the best thing I have ever done,” Moray said simply.

“At some point, you just have to leap,” Matt said. “In our instance the leap was kind of demanded by the circumstance. It was either going to be go all in or don’t go in at all. And dear John Roberts, thank you for making it possible.”