A 29 year partnership: Why marriage in MD matters to Jo and Teresa

It was a moment they had never dreamed of - a moment that seemed impossible.

Jo Deutsch and Teresa Williams had been a couple for over 22 years. They had been through sickness and health - amazingly great moments and the worst of times together. They had supported each other through their siblings' and relatives' sicknesses, injuries and deaths, but they had also shared the joy of the births of their three children and the building of their family.

And, then on May 17, 2004, the unimaginable occurred: Jo was at work when she heard the news. Teresa was at the library with their youngest child. In all their years together, they had never imagined that this day would come in their lifetimes. Jo picked up the phone and called Teresa.

"Will you marry me?" Jo asked.  

And then, without hesitation from Teresa: "Yes."

On that day, the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts had ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples in the state the freedom to marry. It was an extraordinary day. Teresa had heard the news as well, and whispered into the phone, "I just heard. I can't believe it!" She was in the library picking out books with their daughter Bena, who was three and a half years old. Keeping her excitement to a respectable volume was difficult.

As they talked, Jo and Teresa played with the matching rings they had each worn on their left hands since purchasing them 20 years before at a women's music festival in Georgia - rings that showed their love for each other, rings that showed everyone their commitment to each other.

The impossible had become possible, and for the first time ever, they started talking about getting married. They giggled about the ceremony - having their children walk them down the aisle with friends and family witnessing the legal union of two women who had already made a life together. It was a dream come true. In the following days and weeks, they considered driving up to Massachusetts from their home in Maryland to get married, but hope for a ceremony closer to home held them back.


In less than two weeks, Jo and Teresa may finally be able to make good on their eight-year engagement. On Election Day, Marylanders will be asked to vote to uphold the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, which was signed into law by the governor in March but now faces a referendum vote. This year, Marylanders for Marriage Equality and other advocates have been asking voters to support Question 6 to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage.

As Election Day approaches, Jo and Teresa are more and more optimistic that their wish to marry in Maryland will happen. They both grew up in Florida - Teresa from the north and Jo from the south. They met in 1980 and became friends as activists for the National Organization for Women and while campaigning for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in Tallahassee, Fla. In 1983, during a camping trip to the Southern Women's Music Festival, their friendship became more serious.

"It all clicked, and we realized that we were meant for each other," Jo said. "We soon moved to Washington, D.C. so I could start graduate school, and although it seemed very rushed - packing the small U-Haul with all our belongings, driving to D.C., and finding our first basement apartment - it was always right and perfect."

The couple has now been together 29 years and has three children: Jacob, Matthew, and Bena. Through the years, the family has been outspoken for the freedom to marry. All three kids have made their mothers proud by standing up for their family and for gay and lesbian families like theirs by speaking at rallies, being interviewed by the press, and testifying before the Maryland House and Senate committees on why their moms should be able to get married in Maryland. They have all joked that they are looking forward to the day that "they can walk their moms down the aisle and finally give them away."

While they all anticipate that joyful day, they also look forward to finally having the legal protections that go along with marriage. Jo, who works as the Federal Director for Freedom to Marry, said that she's worried for years about the lack of legal protections for her family.  

"I want Teresa and I have the same protections of our straight married friends," she said. "I look forward to the day when we no longer have to worry about all the 'what ifs' - what if something happens to Teresa?, Will the hospital let me visit?, What if something happens to me? How will Teresa and the kids survive without any survivor's benefits?"

If all goes well in Maryland, Jo and Teresa hope to get married in May on their 30th anniversary. They'd love to stand up on that day - in front of their friends and family members, including their children, siblings and Jo's parents, who are 80 and 85 - to celebrate their wonderful life together.

"We have this community of friends and family who are so excited to join us in celebrating not only our 29 years together but also our future life together - complete with all the legal protections that come with a legal marriage," Jo said.

For Jo and Teresa, the freedom to marry in Maryland really does matter. Beyond the tangible, necessary protections, they know that getting married in Maryland would be emotionally validating. Maryland, after all, is their home.

"We want to get married here," Teresa said. "It's significant that our children were born here. It's significant that this is where we've made our home. It's significant that this is where we volunteer in the schools and participate in neighborhood activities. This is where we have lived most of our lives and it will be really significant for us to get married in Maryland. We are part of this community and we want to be treated equally here."

Editors' Note: On November 6, 2012, voters in MaineMarylandMinnesota and Washington will be voting on marriage-related ballot measures. Mainers are being asked to vote YES on Question 1 to proactively pass the freedom to marry at the ballot. Residents in Washington and Maryland are being asked to vote to APPROVE Referendum 74 and to vote FOR Question 6, respectively, to uphold marriage laws passed by their state legislatures in February and March 2012. Minnesotans are being asked to vote NO on a proposed amendment that would constitutionally exclude same-sex couples from marriage. In these next two months before the election, Freedom to Marry will be profiling couples and volunteers for the state campaigns. Read more about the ballot initiatives HERE, and check back on the blog over the next five weeks for couples' stories. 

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