Lifelong Louisianans Stand Up for Marriage

Derek Penton & Jon Robicheaux • New Orleans, LA

Editors' Note: Derek and Jon will make the case for the freedom to marry in federal court on Wednesday, June 25, 2014 at 10:00am CT. Follow them at their Facebook page.

In the summer of 2013, Derek Penton stood before many of his family members and friends, ready to officiate at his brother-in-law's wedding ceremony.

He encouraged his brother-in-law and new sister-in-law to promise their commitment to each other - their commitment to supporting each other for richer, for poorer, in sickness, in health. He asked them each to say "I do." And he declared them married - husband and wife - a legal bond underlining their years of love and commitment.

And yet, despite having the power to officiate weddings in Louisiana, Derek knows that the state of Louisiana does not grant him any respect at all for his own marriage to the love of his life, Jon Robicheaux. The couple married in Iowa in 2012, but laws in Louisiana preclude the state from recognizing them as husbands.

"I don't think of this as a battle - a 'battle' implies an enemy. It implies 'them.' But this is not about 'us vs. them.' It's not a battle. It's a movement."

That injustice is part of what prompted Jon and Derek to mount a federal lawsuit against a constitutional amendment in Louisiana that denies them respect for their marriage license.

Last summer, after celebrating the landmark Supreme Court ruling striking down the central part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act - which for years denied federal respect to legally married same-sex couples - Derek and Jon decided to confront marriage discrimination in their own state.

"When it came down on our side, it ignited a flame in a lot of people - especially those of us who are married and those of us who thought about getting married in the future. We thought, 'Hey, we can do something about this.'"

They filed their case less than a month after the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA, and after some procedural delays - and a similar lawsuit being filed by a local LGBT group the Louisiana Forum for Equality - they are on track to having their day in court, alongside the plaintiffs in the LA Forum for Equality case. Oral arguments in their case, Robicheaux v. Caldwell, are scheduled for June 25, 2014. 

What was a long and drawn-out process all of a sudden has started gaining some traction.

 "It's been a little surreal to watch all of these decisions come down over the past few months," Derek said, referencing the nine federal court rulings in favor of the freedom to marry since December. "After those, it felt like the tide started changing locally, and it's given us more and more hope."

Jon and Derek are both lifelong Louisianans with large, supportive families. The men know that their home state should treat them the same way it treats Jon's and Derek's own siblings - siblings whose kids lovingly and unconditionally call them "Uncle Jon and Uncle Derek." 

"Louisiana is our home," Derek said. "And when you can't get married in your state, it makes you feel unwelcome in your home. We have to jump through hoops to do things that should be simple - filing taxes, being respected as a family. All of those hoops tell us one thing, again and again: You are excluded."

Jon and Derek know that they shouldn't feel excluded in their home - and what's more, they understand that a growing number of their neighbors and community members in Louisiana also don't want to exclude gay and lesbian couples from their state. They know that in the Pelican State, all families should be respected. And that's why they're speaking out. 

"I came to believe that the most active thing I could do to make lives better for LGBT folks here is to marry my husband Jon and take our battle for marriage recognition into the legal arena," Derek explained in a blog post about filing the case. "But really, I don't think of this as a battle - a 'battle' implies an enemy. It implies 'others.' It implies 'them.' But this is not about 'us vs. them.' It's not a battle. It's a movement, and we're proud to be a part of it."