The Knoxville Mercury wrote an awesome article about the rally held in Knoxville in celebration of the nationwide passing of same-sex marriage. I was interviewed for this article, as well, and I wanted to share with you.
“I’d like to introduce my husband,” said Jon Coffee, as his new spouse, Keith Swafford, swung his hands up in the air.
The first gay couple to get married in Knox County, Coffee and Swafford thanked the crowd of about 400 at the Tennessee Amphitheater Friday evening for their support in the fight for marriage equality.
“I’m just so damn happy,” Coffee said to another round of cheers.
Friday evening, supporters of marriage equality gathered at the amphitheater at World’s Fair Park less than nine hours after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage nationwide in Obergefell v. Hodges. The court ruling struck down Tennessee’s 9-year-old ban on gay marriage and ended restrictions in 14 other states, opening the legal door for couples like Coffee and Swafford to be married for the first time, and allowing recognition for existing marriages like those between Sophy Jesty and her wife, Valeria Tanco.
Jesty and Tanco were plaintiffs in the Tanco v. Haslam court case that challenged Tennessee to recognize their marriage and which was later consolidated with three similar cases and argued before the Supreme Court.
On Friday at the celebration, Jesty and Tanco were greeted with a standing ovation by the crowd for their successful legal fight.
After 20 months of court battles, finally having the government recognize her marriage and her motherhood to her daughter is an immense relief, says Jesty.
“It’s a weight that we didn’t even realize how heavy it was until it was gone,” she says. “I’m not quite sure there are any words for it.
“There’s no one that is going to tell me that I’m not Amelia’s parent anymore.”
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, the only Tennessee mayor to publicly support gay marriage, greeted Tanco and Jesty at the celebration, saying that her city “is too busy to hate.”
Nine years ago, Tennessee passed a state constitutional amendment refusing to recognize same sex marriage, making Friday a day of validation for those already married in another state but whose union will finally be recognized by the state.
Joie Mayfield, who married his husband, John Stewart, in Maryland about two years ago, says his love is no different from any anyone else’s.
“We’re no longer second-class,” he says, “We’re just like everyone else—we just have the same genitalia.”
Mayfield says along with recognition by the government, the tide is turning in public support for marriage equality. While legal recognition of his marriage is important, Mayfield says support by non-gays for marriage equality goes a long way towards feeling accepted by society.
“It’s easy for gay people to look at each other and say, yay we did it,” he says. “But for a straight person to say, yay, you did it, that’s head over heels exciting.
“There was someone I saw here, I’ve gone to school with him since fourth grade. He’s not gay, but he just came to show support. And that’s so moving, to see validation from other people.”
Gwen Schablik, committee chair for the Tennessee Equality Project, the organization that sponsored Friday’s event, says Tennessee couples in gay marriages can now enjoy Social Security benefits, health insurance through their spouse’s job, and tax benefits.
While marriage equality is now enshrined in law, there is still more work to be done in the fight for LGBT+ rights, Mayfield says.
“We can still be fired for who we are,” he says, “We’re not a protected class. We can still be denied housing just for who we love.”
Along with protection for transgendered people, bullying is another area in which there is much work left to be done, Schablik says.
“School should be a safe and welcoming place,” she says, “Forty percent of LGBT youth are harassed because of their sexual orientation, because of their gender identity or maybe because they have family that is LGBT.”
Friday’s ruling by the Supreme Court is a long time coming for Mayfield, who says he felt discriminated by Tennessee’s ban on same sex marriage.
When Mayfield and Stewart returned home as a married couple, he says the state treated them merely as roommates rather than an actual couple.
“When I finally found the person I want to spend the rest of my life, for the state to tell me ‘No, you can’t do that,’ you get angry,” Mayfield says.
However, the decision on Friday that forces Tennessee to recognize Mayfield’s and Stewart’s marriage is an immense relief to the couple.
“To hear the government recognize you, that it’s not going to discriminate because of who you love, words can’t express it,” he says.