Photos: Advocates for the freedom to marry share why marriage matters in Knoxville

The United States Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments in cases from four states on the freedom to marry later this month, and Tennessee is one of those states. As we gear up for the hearing on April 28th, Freedom to Marry was honored to partner with Campaign for Southern Equality, Lambda Law Society, and the Tennessee Equality Project to host a Town Hall Meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee to talk about marriage in the state, throughout the South, and across the nation.

The event, held Monday, April 13, consisted of a panel of local and national experts and advocates for the freedom to marry in Tennessee. Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, was joined by Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, and Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project. Attorneys Abby Rubenfeld and Regina Lambert, who are representing the Tennessee marriage case before the Supreme Court, also participated on the panel. And Matt Griffin and Raymie Wolfe, a couple who participated in Campaign for Southern Equality's WE DO campaign last year, spoke about their experience as a same-sex couple unable to wed in their home state.

The event was sponsored by Chris Sanders, Jennifer Watson of the University of Tennessee's law group, and Wendy Bach, associate professor of Law at University of Tennessee, who were instrumental in securing space and materials for the town hall. Wendy also moderated the panel.

Bill Lyons, Deputy and Chief Policy Officer for Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, gave a welcome at the beginning of the meeting, expressing Mayor Rogero's support for the freedom to marry in Tennessee.

Fighting the Battle in the Courts

Tennessee attorneys Abby Rubenfeld (of the Rubenfeld Law Office) and Regina Lambert are two of the attorneys who brought the case seeking respect for marriages between same-sex couples performed in other states in 2013. The two spoke about defending the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in court.

Rubenfeld, who has been practicing law for over thirty years, spoke about Evan Wolfson and Attorney Mary Bonauto, who will be presenting oral arguments in favor of the freedom to marry in state before the United States Supreme Court later this month. "We would not be here today on the brink of full marriage equality but for Evan Wolfson and Mary Bounato," Rubenfeld said. "Evan believed in this when nobody else would."

Rubenfeld spoke about her optimism for the outcome of the United States Supreme Court decision this summer, and how excited she was for Tennessee to play such a big part in the marriage movement nationwide. "I think we will win," she laughed. "And I think it's so awesome that Tennessee gets to be one of the states making marriage a reality."

Regina Lambert, who was a corporate attorney until she was moved by the importance of this case, explained what made her understand why marriage matters. "I knew Sophie and Val, two of the Tennessee plaintiffs, before I joined this case," Regina said. Sophie and Val were married out of state, but their marriage was not respected in Tennessee. "They were the first couple in that situation that I had met."

She also expressed gratitude for the plaintiff couples who put their families in the public eye for these cases. "Being plaintiffs takes a lot of courage, putting yourself out there."

How Marriage Affects Personal Life

Matt and Raymie have been a couple for eight years, and last year, they took part in Campaign for Southern Equality's WE DO Campaign. The couple asked their local clerk for a marriage license on camera and were denied.

The couple felt it was important to take part in this procedure because they wanted to show their town that they want to get married for the same reasons as everyone else: they are loving and committed.

"We still live on my family farm that my father and grandfather lived on," Raymie said. "I felt lucky to have that home there, and then when I fell in love with Matty, that luck just grew. I thought, 'I need to bring him back to that farm.' We're the same people as my father and grandfather. We have the same problems, successes, dreams and love."

From Tennessee to the Nation and the South

Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrera, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, spoke about the WE DO actions that couples like Matt and Raymie participate in across the south. "These actions are very much about creating public rituals and breaking through the silence around LGBT people in the south," she said. "So often in the south, we feel like we have to be quiet about who we are."

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, agreed, explaining the particular difficulties that couples might face in Tennessee if marriage were to win before the Supreme Court this summer. "There will be a Day One of marriages, and some counties may not be giving out marriage licenses," he pointed out. "We will be here to direct you to counties that will be issuing marriage licenses."

Chris also stressed that it was important for same-sex couples who are willing to wait for their licenses to attempt to get them from counties that are not complying to show how many loving, committed couples are ready for marriage in Tennessee.

Evan Wolfson, president and founder of Freedom to Marry, explained that it was exactly those displays of family, stamility, and commitment that has helped the marriage movement get to where it is today. "By engaging in the work for the freedom to marry, we are claiming a vocabulary of love, connection, family, and inclusion that helps people understand who gay people really are," he said. "While the laywers do their part in the courts, the rest of us must do our part in having conversations that change minds and show the public who we are."

Our Work Is Not Done

A theme on Monday that ran throughout the event was that our work isn't done. We haven't won marriage at the Supreme Court yet, but, even when the freedom to marry is secured across the nation, there will be work to do at the state level.

"When we do win marriage, we'll need volunteers," Chris pointed out. "We'll need celebrants, we'll need people to let us know about officiants, we'll need guardians. I think we're going to have some bumps at the state level."

"When these major civil rights decisions come down they're not always implemented so quickly," Abby said, referencing the Brown v. Board of Education decision that did not take noticeable effect in Tennessee for several years. "There's going to be a transition period, and Freedom to Marry and the Campaign for Southern Equality work really hard to change peoples minds. And state groups, like Tennessee Equality Project, are important to work to do the cleanup."

Evan agreed, referencing that there are often percieved setbacks in progressive movements. "Every time the United States has taken an advance in civil rights, we have seen attempts to block that advance," he said. "These have been ongoing struggles. The work is never done - even when we've made progress. When the opponents have ultimately lost the battle, they try to stall."

"We didn't come to incredible momentum for marriage overnight," Evan continued. "We didn't come to this simply because of lawyers or plaintiffs. If it were that simple, we would have been done 40 years ago. We have been fighting for decades, and we've been making that case in the court of public opinion where we're now making that case in the court of law. The American people have come to realize that discrimination is wrong."

Check out more photos from the event here: