Fighting for Change in Georgia After 40 Years

Bill Whittaker & Matthew Malok • Atlanta, GA

For Matthew Malok, the day he stood before his family members and friends and declared his commitment to the love of his life, Bill Whittaker, was truly a full-circle moment.

It was December 8, 2008, and Matthew and Bill had flown up to Stratford, CT from their home in Atlanta, GA in order to marry and receive a marriage license. Matthew grew up in Stratford, and it was amazing for him to return to the place he was raised, after 35 years of building a life with Bill, and get legally married by the Mayor of Stratford.

"I still remember looking out of town hall and realizing that I was staring at the home room of my high school where I graduated in 1966," Matthew said. "That was really wonderful. Of course, when Bill and Matthew returned to Atlanta, the state of Georgia denied any and all respect to their marriage license: As far as the state was concerned, the men were single.

Now, even five years later, in a period where fourteen additional states have extended the freedom to marry to same-sex couples (joining MA and CA), public support for marriage has far surpassed majority support nationwide, and the nation's highest court has taken a big step toward ending federal marriage discrimination, the state of Georgia continues to deny couples like Matthew and Bill respect. Anti-marriage laws in the state effectively deny Matthew and Bill the dignity of their 40 years together - the legal and intangible respect they should be granted after building a life together for so long. 

In 40 years, Matthew and Bill have supported an "adopted" family of sorts, several other gay men who have turned to Matthew and Bill as father figures (pictured below) - "It's like a family of choice rather than a biological family, and they're incredibly special to us," Matthew said. They have remained active members of their church, St. Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta. And they have celebrated the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' the anti-gay law that Bill lived under while serving in the U.S. Air Force for eight years.

For couples like Matthew and Bill, anti-marriage laws serve as a real source of tension and insecurity - they have had many conversations about whether they should leave Georgia, move to a state that does not deny them the fundamental freedom to marry. They're specifically concerned how Georgia's anti-marriage laws will affect important programs like Social Security and Estate Planning. And while they were able to file federal taxes as a married couple this year, they had to prepare separate returns for state taxes since their marriage is not recognized in Georgia.

Matthew and Bill do not want to leave Atlanta, their home for more than 30 years. And the truth is that they shouldn't have to - no American should be told that they cannot marry the person they love, and Matthew and Bill understand that they are important voices in the Georgia community. They are hopeful that soon, same-sex couples in Georgia - and across the country - will be able to legally marry. 

"Why should we have to move in order to be treated like a married couple?" Matthew asked, adding, "No one's kicking us out - but in a sense, they are. Just the idea that on the books in Georgia, we are not allowed to marry, that is a dismissal of our dignity as a couple, and as people."

"We are so glad that we are legally married," he continued. "The public commitment in front of our family and friends was priceless. But it's disheartening, to say the least, that our relationship is not acknowledged here in Georgia. We need to get this changed as soon as possible."