Upstate New York same sex couples: DOMA is next!

By Megan Carpentier
Thursday, March 1, 2012 13:16 EDT
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Jeff Sterling and Milford Decker in Utica, NY
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Although the celebrations when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed marriage equality into law were more voluble in New York City, the end of the political struggle for same sex couples to gain the right to marry had at least as big an impact on those couples — and LGBT people as a whole — living well north of one of the country’s largest LGBT communities. But despite the occasional story of someone openly disdainful of those rights, several same sex couples told Raw Story Wednesday that they’d never felt more welcome in their chosen homes.

Jeff Sterling and Milford Decker of Utica (pictured above) have lived in upstate New York their entire lives — and long before either was out of the closet. Decker, once a town historian in Montgomery County, was forcibly outed in 1976 by the town sheriff in his effort to win reelection, losing his job and humiliating his kids (who still have a distant relationship with their father). Karma never got the sheriff — despite the fact that the whole town was well aware that he “kept a woman at a camp on Sacandaga Lake,” Decker said — but Decker says, “it’s not that bad a place to be gay. Because I didn’t have much choice [in being out], I’ve been active for years in support groups” going back to the start of the AIDS crisis.

Sterling, too, struggled with coming to terms with his identity — though, after two marriages and children, his mom told him, “I always knew,” when he finally came out to her, and the couple is still on good terms with both of Sterling’s ex-wives and children. “It’s so much effort to be not who you really are,” Sterling says now. In response, the two launched two pride groups in the area, host a local potluck and attempt to be available to young people in the area, and were invited to put together a group to march for marriage equality in Utica’s Fourth of July parade last year.

Though they appreciate that the state will finally allow them to legalize their committed relationship, Decker is concerned that marriage will make Sterling responsible for his end-of-life medical bills — a concern Sterling dismisses — and double the amount Medicare will demand from them before kicking in for certain kinds of care. Though the so-called Defense Of Marriage Act currently prevents the federal government from recognizing their relationship, Decker seems convinced that DOMA isn’t long for the world and they might end up with some unintentional financial responsibilities when it finally goes away.

Don Shipman, the anchor at Utica’s WKTV, agrees that DOMA’s got to be next: “It’s a slap in the face,” he says, that he and his husband Adam Lawless can go away for their honeymoon and not be considered married. “You’re a second-class citizen,” Lawless said, “You can drive across the U.S. and be married and not married and married and not married and civil union’d and not married again.”

Shipman, who lived in what he called the “glass closet” — open in his personal life but not explicit in his day job — finally mentioned Lawless on-air by name after they got engaged. “It was so subtle, but I was surprised how many people picked up on it,” he said, calling the response “positive” from adults and even some teenagers alike. Lawless had been accompanying Shipman to public events for years, “but you’re not sure how people will react,” he told Raw Story, adding, “it’s not just my career and my future in the area [where we've chosen to live], it’s his too.” Their marriage, in keeping with WKTV tradition, was broadcast in part by the station, was “the first time people saw someone they knew and presumably liked get married to a man,” Shipman said. Other than the occasional comment on the Internet, both men agreed that positive reactions from their community far outweighed the negative — and many people told them “it was about time.”

It helped mitigate what Lawless termed the “Glee” effect he occasionally felt in Utica: “Everyone’s safe in Mr. Shue’s room, but then you walk out and it’s a slushie in the face.” Lawless added that marriage equality is “the difference between acceptance and tolerance. You tolerate a toddler running around a nice restaurant, but you accept a person. I feel like this area is becoming more and more accepting.” Shipman added, “By not making [our marriage] ‘a statement,’ it helped create a difference.”

Lauren Hering, who owns the Merlin’s, the oldest LGBTQ bar in Binghamton, and her wife Jessica Arnold had a similar experience to Shipman and Lawless. “We were on the front page of the newspaper [when we got married],” Hering said, as they were the first couple in the area to do so. “We’ve heard nothing but good things” from people in the community: Arnold said “cab drivers would stop and roll their windows down to say, ‘Congratulations! It’s about time,’” and Hering reported well-wishes from high school friends she connected with on Facebook but to whom she hadn’t made a point of coming out. “The mayor of the city married us,” Hering said, and Arnold said the city agency she worked for threw her a wedding shower.

“That’s a very affirming thing, a very validating thing,” Hering said, “when people have known you for forty years reach out to congratulate you on a wedding, when they tell you it was long overdue.” Arnold said, “I was really pissed that I had to leave the state to get married. I wanted to get married in my hometown, with my friends and family around, not in Connecticut.” Hering added, “Not being able to marry in New York state was offensive… the sense of minimizing our commitment was offensive.”

“People not recognizing that I’m a human being and that I know what it is to love and what I want was offensive,” said Arnold — which is why, Hering said, “DOMA has to be next.”

Megan Carpentier
Megan Carpentier is the executive editor of Raw Story. She previously served as an associate editor at Talking Points Memo; the editor of news and politics at Air America; an editor at Jezebel.com; and an associate editor at Wonkette. Her published works include pieces for the Washington Post, the Washington Independent, Ms Magazine, RH Reality Check, the Women's Media Center, On the Issues, the New York Press, Bitch and Women's eNews.
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