10 Alaska couples declare that “Love is Love” in gorgeous photo project

Editors' note: On October 12, a federal judge ruled in favor of the freedom to marry in Alaska, paving the way for marriages between same-sex couples.

UPDATE: Love is Love is going national! Founders Mitch Kitter and Shalem Matthew are fundraising now on Kickstarter, working on photographing more amazing families in states across the country. Check it out HERE.  

More than two years ago, a young woman was having head shots taken at Treft.Punkt, a photography studio in Anchorage, Alaska. During her shoot, she asked the photographer, Shalem Matthew, about his wedding engagement shoots.

"Do you photograph all kinds of people?" She asked.

Shalem was a bit confused. "I think we do," he started. "What do you mean 'all kinds of people'?"

"Like, do you photograph all kinds of couples?," she clarified. "Like, an engagement with two women." She explained that she had approached two other local photographers, and they turned her and her girlfriend down.

Shalem smiled, nodded: "Of course." The young woman had come to the perfect studio: Shalem owned Propaganda AK with his partner, Mitch Kitter (pictured, left, with Shalem).

The experience lit a spark for Shalem and Mitch, who found it disheartening that same-sex couples like the young woman were denied by photographers and told that their love is not worth documenting. "Love is love - all love is equal," Mitch thought, and quickly, he and Shalem began planning a new project - the "Love is Love" project, a photography exhibit and book featuring 28 same-sex couples from across Alaska. The project officially launched in October 2012 with an exhibit in Anchorage, and soon, Mitch and Shalem will be embarking on a more expansive tour through the United States, arranging new photo shoots with other loving same-sex couples in the country, many of whom are still denied the freedom to marry. 

"Love is Love" is not just a gorgeous photography project. It is not just a creative method of advocating for same-sex couples and their freedoms in Alaska. It is both of those things - but it is more than that: it is a beautiful celebration of love, an affirmation of people who have committed their lives to each other, a reminder that the nationwide discussion over the freedom to marry involves real people, a loud and strong and compelling and simple declaration: love is love.

Here, Freedom to Marry caught up with 10 of the Alaska couples who participated in Mitch and Shalem's Love is Love project. Read their stories, and watch a video at the end of the post featuring more great families and their stories. Check out Love is Love's official website, and follow the project on Facebook HERE

Lily Fawn White & Rhonda Sparks 

Fawn and Rhonda live with their young son, Trevor White, in Nome, Alaska, where the women met for the first time. When Fawn moved to Nome from the White Eagle Reservation in Oklahoma, she quickly connected with Rhonda and they began to build their life together, including welcoming Trev into their life in 2009. Because same-sex couples do not have the freedom to marry in Alaska, Fawn and Rhonda are unmarried - but that doesn't mean they haven't thought about how they want to celebrate their love and commitment. 

"I want to get married on the beaches of the Seward Peninsula," Fawn said. "I want to be facing the Bering Sea with my mom and dad sitting in the front row. I want my pastor to lead us in prayer. I want my brother to sing a Prayer Song from my Ponca people. I want to make my vow to love and cherish Rhonda and our son as long as I live. I want to make my vow publicly and lawfully. I want to have her as my wife."

They know that they want to tie the knot in their home state - and they want Alaska to support their love. "Alaska is a part of my Identity and it would add another mark of pride," Rhonda said, explaining, "To say, I am Alaskan, I am from this wonderful state that offers so much and supports me and who I am." 

Fawn said that she and Rhonda would continue speaking out for the freedom to marry. "As Native people, we are no strangers to the struggle for equality," she said. Our grandparents and parents have raised us to be resilient and to stand and fight for what is right.  I plan on standing until I am able to walk down the aisle and proclaim my love for the mother of my child, the woman I cherish and adore."

Read more about Fawn and Rhonda's "Love is Love" shoot.

Trevor Storrs & Stephan Smith

Stephan and Trevor have been together for over 15 years, and they live together in Anchorage, Alaska. They are not yet legally married, but in 2009, they gathered nearly 200 of their loved ones together in Alaska to celebrate just over a decade of love and commitment together. 

"We held a commitment ceremony at home so that we could share the celebration with our friends and family, and that couldn't have happened if we married out of state," Trevor said. "We're very aware of the negative, disrespectful impacts of not being able to be married in our state - specifically economically."

Having 15 years of commitment disrespected by the state where the men have such deep roots (with Stephan growing up in Anchorage and Trevor having grown up in Alberta, Canada) is frustrating, the couple said. "In our minds and our hearts, we are married," Stephan added. "But to be legally recognized by the state as married would impact us in a positive way. As members of our community, we are expected to contribute equally like our straight counterparts, but we're not afforded the same rights. As individuals who contribute financially and through volunteer work to build a stronger community and state, we expect that our love - which is no different from our other friends' love - is given the same respect."

Read more about Trevor and Stephan's "Love is Love" shoot. 

Malyn & Ava Anderson 

Ava and Malyn have been together for over nine years - ever since Ava moved to Anchorage, stepped foot in Malyn's office, and felt an instant connection. Today, they still work in real estate in Anchorage, where they're surrounded by the beautiful Alaska landscape.

The women married in Sook on Vancouver Island in Canada, but their marriage is not repected in Alaska. The denial of marriage in Alaska affects Ava and Malyn in many concrete, tangible ways: complications arise or additional, laborious and confusing paperwork is required when it comes to financial accounts, insurance policies, tax benefits, and property loans. Other questions - property ownership rights, survivor benefits, and family situations involving custody of a child - remain unclear for same-sex couples in Alaska, and the reality of that inequality is underlined for couples like Ava and Malyn again and again. 

"Marriage is a commitment to the person you love - that you will be by their side, take care of them when they are ill, and make a life together," Ava said. "But here in Alaska, since our marriage is not respected, that commitment is extremely difficult to facilitate without added and unnecessary elements of stress and complication."

Ava and Malyn were thrilled to see the central part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act struck down in June 2013, which eased some of the burden of being a married same-sex couple in the United States. But they know that was just the first step. "It felt like we finally broke through a barrier - it was wonderful to see the momentum," Ava said. "And yet, we have so much more to do to obtain true equality throughout the entire system."

Read more about Malyn and Ava's "Love is Love" shoot.

Sean Clark & Erik Whitney

Sean and Erik live in Fairbanks, Alaska - Sean's hometown. They have not tied the knot - they'd like the freedom to marry where they live, in Alaska. In March, while vacationing in Costa Rica, Erik proposed to Sean during a long hike in the cloud forest at Poás Volanco.

"Marriage matters to us because it is a public declaration of our love," Sean and Erik explained. "It was awesome to see DOMA overturned in June because it made us excited to see what the future will bring."

Sean and Erik love each other and are committed for the long haul - but they are denied the freedom to marry in their home state and understand that it's time for marriage across the United States - including in Alaska.

Issa Braman & Jaime Spatrisano

Rugby has always been an important part of Issa and Jaime's life. In fact, it's how they met each other, back in January 2007 when Jaime joined the college rugby team that Issa played for. Soon after, they began dating, and since then, they've moved from their hometowns in Michigan to Anchorage, where Jaime is attending graduate school. 

"When I first met Jaime, I was still in the closet," Issa explained in the book version of the Love is Love Project. "But the minute she walked into rugby practice, I knew in my heart that everything in my life was about to change because of her. Through our years together, so much has changed - but one thing never has: Her ability to amaze me every day."

Issa and Jaime plan to marry in Seattle, WA next May, since same-sex couples do not have the freedom to marry in Alaska or the state where both women grew up, Michigan. They love each other and are ready to commit their lives to each other - but they're not allowed to do so where they live, and that impacts them in many ways.

"Marriage matters to us in part because it gives us access to a multitude of rights and the ability to be equal to other opposite sex relationships," Issa said. "We recently purchased a house together in Anchorage and since the state doesn't recognize any same sex partnerships or marriages from other states even, it is necessary for us to get a will to ensure that if something happens to either of us that the other would get the other half of the house instead of our parents or descendants. This situation repeats and repeats in all aspects of our lives."

Read more about Issa and Jaime's "Love is Love" shoot.

Jim Henry & Gary Dearth

When you've been committed to the person you love for more than 30 years and they suffer a traumatic medical illness, you shouldn't have to worry that the staff at the hospital will misunderstand your relationship. But last February, when Gary Dearth experienced a renal shutdown and was told that his chances of survival were slim, Gary's partner Jim was faced with similar concerns. Without any legal ties to each other, Jim and Gary feared that they would be separated or discriminated against in their time of suffering.

"Jim was allowed to stay with me in the hospital, but we knew that anyone could change that on a whim," Gary explained. "That's a needless worry when you're fighting for your life. And if I died, I couldn't guarantee Jim would receive my half of our partnership - our house, and our jointly held properties. It was a horrible situation to be in."

The men have spent three decades together in Alaska - and yet in order to legally marry, they'll have to travel away from the state they love, the state where they have built their life together. And when they return, they will continue to be denied respect. "We are still going to be denied any benefits of marriage unless we move out of Alaska to a state that could recognize our marriage," Gary said.

The men are hoping to marry in Palm Springs, California this year. 

Read more about Gary and Jim's "Love is Love" shoot.

Adam Womble & Casey Griffith

Adam and Casey's first date wasn't exactly a flawless fairytale: They were in Fairbanks, AK, where Casey was born and raised, and their car ran out of gas. The temperature was below zero degrees outside, and as they resorted to siphoning fuel into the gas tank with a coffee cup, they looked at each other, laughed, and knew that if they could work together on their first date to escape the freezing cold, they could achieve anything together. 

The couple has been together ever since, and now they live in Anchorage, AK pursuing nursing degrees. They're not married, but they hope to marry soon. Unfortunately, they'll have to leave Alaska in order to marry and be respected as a married couple. 

"We love Alaska - and it would mean so much for the state that we call home to acknowledge myself and my future husband as married residents," Adam explained. "Marriage matters because it's an outward expression of feelings you have for someone else - a declaration of wanting to spend the rest of your life with them."

"Adam has shown me what i am truly capable of achieving in life," Casey said in the book version of the Love is Love Project. "When i didn’t believe in myself, he was there, cheering me on the entire way. I couldn’t imagine meeting anyone else at the finish line. He has shown me what passion, success, family, faith and above all else, unconditional love is. He will forever be my lover, best friend, teacher, and partner in crime."

Read more about Adam and Casey's "Love is Love" shoot.

Steph & Lela Figarelle

They had to fly across the country to be able to say "I Do," but in February 2012, Steph and Lela became the first same-sex couple ever to marry at the Empire State Building in New York City. They met while studying together at the University of Alaska, and now, the married couple lives and works together as personal trainers at a fitness company in Anchorage. 

"We got married because we are in love, we're best friends, and we want to build a life together," Steph said. "We inspire each other to take on the challenges of life, try new things, and to evolve as human beings. We compliment each other very well. There are so many amazing aspects of marriage - and everyone should have the right to experience such an incredible bond with the person they deeply love and trust."

Steph and Lela loved having their wedding in New York - but they would have preferred to be able to say "I Do" in their home state, where their marriage is not granted any legal respect. 

"To live somewhere that you love and not be recognized as a married couple is insulting," Lela said. "Alaska is our home. We grew up here. We went to school here. We live and work here. Alaska is a part of us."

Read more about Steph and Lela's "Love is Love" shoot.

Shawn Bernard & Edmar Carrillo

Shawn, originally from Detroit, and Edmar, who hails from Juneau, AK, have both lived in Anchorage, AK for more than three years. Although they're not married, they'd like to someday declare their commitment to each other through marriage - but since they live in Alaska, getting married would have few legal ramifications in their home state. 

"We eventually want to have children to create a family, and there are rights that are afforded to married couples that provide support, protection, and safeguards," Shawn explained. "We want to show that we are committed to each other just as our heterosexual counterparts are - and we want to be able to protect ourselves and any future members of our family."

Shawn and Edmar have come a long way since their first date - they spent significant time apart from each other, separated by half the globe as Shawn lived in Unalakleet and Edmar traveled to Australia. "The distance proved difficult, but through daily contact and the occasional romantic date over Skype, we continued to build a connection," Edmar and Shawn explained in the book version of "Love is Love." 

By the time Edmar returned to Juneau, he and Shawn were undeniably in love, and they both relocated to Anchorage, where they've lived ever since. 

Roni Lanier & Stacey McAfee

On June 26 of this year, as Roni and Stacey listened to the news about the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the central part of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, they knew they were experiencing history.

"It was similar to how I felt when I saw the Berlin Wall fall," Stacey explained. "It's like I was watching a huge rock hit the surface of a lake, knowing that the ripples it would cause would be even bigger than the rock or the initial splash itself. I felt relieved - like a pressure on my chest had been released."

Stacey lives with her partner Roni in Anchorage, Alaska. She and Roni are not married, and while they've talked about getting married in Canada or Europe, they think it may make more sense to wait until the United States finally ends the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage.

"There is budding hope for both of us that marriage equality is around the corner for everyone," Stacey said.  

Stacey and Roni were thrilled to have the chance to participate in "Love is Love." "Since our shoot, we have met a number of the other couples who were a part of it, too" they said. "Every time we figure out we were both in Love is Love, all four of us get wide smiles on our faces and we just nod. It is something quite special, and Roni and I are grateful for those ties now forged between us and all of the others who were included."

Watch the Video: "Love is Love"

Check out Love is Love's official website, and follow the project on Facebook HERE. You can help take the project national through the 'Love is Love' Kickstarter page HERE