One border and 30 miles make all the difference in how these same-sex couples are treated

This Thursday marks the first anniversary since the United States Supreme Court struck down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, the law that for 16 years restricted the federal government from respecting the legal marriages of same-sex couples.

Since last June, the landscape in the campaign to win marriage nationwide has immeasurably changed, with hundreds of thousands of couples receiving the legal respect from the federal government that they deserve, an additional 6 states (HI, IL, NJ, NM OR & PA) extending the freedom to marry to same-sex couples, and 20 courts ruling in favor of marriage.

We've come a long way in just one year - but we're not there yet. In many ways, the marriage discrimination that still persists in 31 states is clearer and more egregious than ever, as same-sex couples are treated differently across the country: There are married couples who are treated as married by their state and the federal government; there are married couples who are respected as married federally but disrespected at the state level; and there are couples who want to marry but have been unable because of their state's anti-marriage laws.

These couples are only treated differently because of where they live - a simple state border can be the difference between a family receiving all of the dignity they deserve for their marriage and receiving no respect at all. To illustrate the reality of these untenable marriage laws, Freedom to Marry spoke with two couples who have led similar lives and yet, because of the state border between Illinois and Indiana - and just 30 miles in between their homes - are treated dramatically differently when it comes to accessing simple respect for their relationship:

Instant Connections

Theresa Volpe and Mercedes Santos met nearly 23 years ago in Chicago, Illinois. Theresa had recently started working as a writer and editor at the same publishing company where Mercedes worked as a designer. Mercedes approached Theresa for the first time while the company was helping Theresa celebrate her birthday, and the women immediately hit it off. They became fast friends and began to hang out outside of work.

Rick Soria and Scott Fech met 16 years ago, in August 1998 - and to hear Scott tell it, it was a miracle that they ever connected at all. "It really was a stroke of luck," Scott explained. "Mutual friends hosted a party that neither one of us should have attended - Rick was a funeral director at the time, and when he was ‘on call,’ he tended not to go out much, and I had just helped my brother move to Toledo - but we both decided to go and arrived at the same time." Instantly attracted to each other, the men spent the rest of the evening talking and realizing how happy they were that they decided to go to the party.

Becoming a Couple

As their friendship blossomed, Theresa and Mercedes each realized that there was something more there, although neither had ever dated a woman. "I just realized that she had every single quality I love about my friends," Theresa said. "She's way funny, she's beautiful, she's intelligent, she's super talented." One night while out at a bar, Theresa and Mercedes were approached by two men who wanted to buy them drinks. They politely declined, and the men snorted, jokingly, "Oh, are you on a date?" The women looked at each other, smiled, and realized that yes - they were on a date. Their friendship had grown into something more. "We weren't sure what it was," Theresa said. "It was a friendship - but we also felt like we were soul mates."

The day after the party, Rick and Scott just wanted to keep hanging out - the very next day, they met for coffee in the early afternoon, which turned into dinner in the evening, which quickly turned into a relationship. "We had just had many similar experiences," Scott said. "Rick had recently lost his mom, and I had lost my mom 10 or 12 years earlier - that kind of connection was significant for us. We shared similar life goals and career goals and he worked hard and had seen so much at a very young age. There were just things about him that seemed to be everything I was looking for."

Moving In and Supporting Each Other

After about four months together, Theresa and Mercedes moved in together into an apartment in Chicago - and years later, they purchased a home in the neighborhood of Rogers Park. That's the home where they still live today, and it's the home where they began working together in their basement to co-found a small business that develops PreK-12 educational materials for publishers. Now, they have offices nearby and a budding staff, and they support each other and work side-by-side every step of the way.

Rick and Scott moved in together after about three months of dating, a natural transition for the men, who describe their time together in their courtship as "inseparable," despite living an hour away from each other in Indiana. They both went to graduate school at the same time, with Rick completing a law degree and Scott finishing his PhD in Educational Administration. They supported each other through their schooling, and now, they continue to support each other in their respective careers - Rick works for Indiana's only community college, serving as the campus president of the Michigan City location, and Scott is a high school principal for the highly selective University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Hyde Park.

Building a Family

Nearly ten years ago, Theresa and Mercedes said, they made the best decision of their lives when they decided to have children, and they’re raising three beautiful kids, “the biggest joys of our lives.” Through it all, Theresa and Mercedes' parents have been there to support them and help them along.

Rick and Scott are also very close to their family members, with much of their time devoted to celebrating holidays and family engagements with their siblings, parents, and nieces and nephews. Recently, the men have entered the adoption process, working with an agency so that soon, they can begin raising a child together.

Standing Up for Marriage

In the past few years, Theresa and Mercedes have spoken out for the freedom to marry again and again, perhaps most notably by joining Lambda Legal's historic lawsuit in 2012 seeking the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.

They were prompted to sign on to the case when their son Jaidon was hospitalized, close to death as a result of kidney failure, and Theresa was denied entry into the intensive care unit. The ICU, hospital workers told her, was for "parents only," and even though she and Mercedes are both legal parents to Jaidon and Ava and were joined together in civil union in Illinois, the only thing that mattered to the hospital was that Theresa and Mercedes were not married. Watch a video from Lambda Legal featuring Mercedes and Theresa discussing this harrowing episode here.

In 2013, they testified before the Illinois Senate Executive Committee about the importance of a bill that the House and Senate were considering to move marriage forward in the state. "The Lambda Legal experience really opened our eyes," Theresa explained. "We saw what it takes to actually right a wrong - it takes everyone telling their stories and putting a face to what it really means to be treated unequally and unfairly."

After being together for over 14 years, Rick and Scott hosted a commitment ceremony at the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso, Indiana, in front of their closest family members and friends. "What started as a traditional ceremony with the officiant and 'friends of honor' walking down the aisle to Andrea Boccelli's Con Te Partiro quickly turned to us dancing to Pink's 'Raise Your Glass,' Rick laughed. "Our nephews and nieces joined the ceremony by sharing important memories of good times spent with Uncle Scott and Rick. It was great."

Despite the beautiful ceremony, Rick and Scott were still denied access to any legal protections in the state of Indiana. And although they received a civil union shortly before the ceremony in Illinois, they knew that their civil union was not a marriage license - and that for state and federal purposes, they were not seen as a married couple.

Last year, as the Indiana legislature considered HJR-3, a proposed constitutional amendment that sought to ban any and all protections for same-sex couples - including those associated with marriage, civil union, and domestic partnership - Rick and Scott became highly involved with Freedom Indiana, the campaign to defeat HJR-3. The men, both born in the Hoosier State, knew that same-sex couples like them from all over the state needed to raise their voices against the harmful and discriminatory amendment. This spring, as Freedom Indiana claimed victory in keeping HJR-3 off of the ballot this fall, Rick and Scott joined their state in celebration.

A Marriage Victory in Illinois - and the Pathway Forward in Indiana

Last fall, the Illinois General Assembly at last passed a marriage bill - thanks in large part to advocates like Mercedes & Theresa, the Lambda Legal team, and the robust coalition of marriage supporters at Illinois Unites for Marriage. Then, in February of this year, a separate Lambda Legal case brought the freedom to marry sooner than expected - the law took effect state-wide in June, but in many counties, marriage licenses were issued beginning in late February as a result of the case.

Theresa and Mercedes were one of the first couples to marry, and as they said "I do" at last, they reflected on how they made an impact. "We really put our family out there and opened up our life to show people that this really does make a difference," Theresa said. "Being involved with the case and with this fight changed our lives."

Now, Rick and Scott - and hundreds of other supporters in Indiana - know that it's time for marriage in the Hoosier state. "The momentum throughout the country makes us feel like there is no stopping this," Rick said. "For both of us, this is something we never dreamed would ever be so close to reality - but it's so exciting to think about the possibilities should marriage equality come to Indiana."

They're ready to stand with Hoosiers Unite for Marriage, a new public education campaign dedicated to winning marriage for couples across Indiana. And throughout it all, they know that they have the backing of a large majority of Americans who know that the country is ready for national resolution from the Supreme Court.

Closing the Gap on Marriage Discrimination

After watching the amazing victory in their home state unfold, Mercedes and Theresa know how important it is for same-sex couples to speak out about why marriage matters.

"For couples who can't yet marry, it's all about persistence," Theresa said. "It's all about going after the fight. It's telling your neighbor about your life - making people aware of what's important as far as your family life and the legal rights associated with marriage. Just having that conversation is half the battle."

"Marriage really does matter," Rick and Scott explained. "To be valued fully by the state of Indiana would make such a difference. While in theory, nothing would change about our relationship personally - since we're already fully committed to each other - there are legal protections that would be helpful. We have trusts that dictate our authority over one another's life decisions, but it would be nice to not have to fight for that - to simply be granted it by virtue of our relationship."

"It's sad that other states recognize our relationship," they continued, referencing their civil union from Illinois and the fact that they could drive just minutes and be in a state where all are free to marry. "But our own state, where we pay taxes and give back to the community in so many ways, we are sadly dismissed."

Ready for Resolution

Rick & Scott and Theresa & Mercedes have each shared in the joys of falling in love and building a life together for more than a decade. But because of where they live, only Theresa & Mercedes have been able to access all of the protections and responsibilities of marriage that they deserve. Just 60 miles separate the two couples - but the disparity in terms of how their relationship is treated is enormous.

It's time to end this arbitrary and damaging marriage discrimination that same-sex couples continue to face in 31 states. Across the country, a growing majority of Americans already agree, with 59% of Americans overall - and a majority in every region of the country, including the South - supportive of marriage for same-sex couples. It's time for the United States Supreme Court to provide national resolution on this issue and end the harms that thousands of families continue to face. It's time for the freedom to marry nationwide.