When Ashley Jestat took a vacation to the Dominican Republic in 2002, she had no idea that she would meet the love of her life. While staying with her family at a vacation resort, Ashley met Gabriela Giuliani, who was back in the Dominican Republic, where she was born and grew up before moving to New Jersey over 25 years ago, visiting family and friends.
The women danced together at one of the resort's night clubs, felt an instant connection, and talked the rest of the night on the beach. When Ashley returned home to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she and Gabriela didn't stop talking, their romance didn't end, and eight months later, they moved in together in Red Bank, NJ. Gabriela had been living in Howell, NJ, working as a police officer, and much of her family lived nearby.
"After meeting Gabriela and returning home, my friends kept saying that I talked about her the way someone would talk about a person they were eventually going to marry," Ashley said. "That's why I left everything and moved to New Jersey, because I couldn't stand life without her."
Years later, in 2010, they knew that they wanted the opportunity to celebrate their commitment to each other in front of all of their loved ones.
"We looked into each other's eyes and promised that nothing or no one would ever change the love we have for one another," Gabriela said. "We decided to solidify our relationship by getting married in front of our family and friends."
Since same-sex couples do not have the freedom to marry in New Jersey, Ashley and Gabriela were joined together in civil union on June 15, 2013 - the eleventh anniversary of the day that Ashley returned home from meeting Gabriela in the Dominican Republic.
Their ceremony was everything they wanted it to be. As a graphic designer, Ashley dove into the process of developing materials for the big day, and by the time it finally arrived, they knew that it would be the perfect way for them to celebrate their eleven years of commitment and their future together alongside their loved ones.
Their video preview of the ceremony, produced by Love Sick Inc. perfectly captures the joy and love that Gabriela and Ashley share. Watch the great clip:
"Our wedding day was the greatest day of our lives," Ashley explained. "It was so amazing to have our friends and family there to witness us become one. It was amazing to see the overwhelming support from our family. It was like an out-of-body experience, finally saying something we had wanted to say for so long."
That day, they were finally able to walk down the aisle, hand in hand, with Ashley’s cousin Mya and Shih Tzu named Ginger preceding them.
They said their vows to each other, telling each other what they loved most about their relationship, then accepted their rings from Ashley's cousin Geno and Yorkie Poodle named Spicy.
They promised their commitment to each other. They said I do. And they sealed their promise with a kiss.
It was a great day for Gabriela and Ashley, but even still, they knew that they were not legally married. They would have had to enter another state - one of the 13 states with the freedom to marry or the District of Columbia - in order to get a marriage license.
"It didn't feel right to seek a marriage license in any other state but the state where we reside," Ashley said. "We live in New Jersey, we have built our life in New Jersey, and we want to get married in New Jersey."
"We want to back the movement working to make New Jersey a marriage state," Gabriela said. "We believe in New Jersey, and that outweighs running to another state in order to get a marriage license."
The week after their wedding, Gabriela and Ashley took their honeymoon in Miami, Florida, celebrating their landmark step forward as a couple with a vacation, just as they began as a couple 11 years before.
On June 26, they saw the news from the United States Supreme Court striking down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which would extend the federal protections of marriage to same-sex couples.
"When DOMA was overturned, it was loudly declared that all citizens of the United States should be treated equally," Ashley said. "It felt like a victory and a big step toward equal rights for all."
Seeing DOMA struck down was a wonderful triumph for Ashley and Gabriela during their honeymoon. But in some ways, it felt bittersweet. They knew that the ruling only applied to same-sex couples who were legally married.
"It reminded us that our civil union license back in New Jersey does not afford us the same federal protections that are exclusively available to married couples," Gabriela said. "We truly look forward to the day when we have the freedom to marry in New Jersey."
This year, lawmakers in New Jersey have the chance to make Ashley and Gabriela's hope for the future come true. New Jersey United for Marriage is a coalition of community organizations, faith institutions, civil rights groups, and business leaders coming together to pass the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in New Jersey. Freedom to Marry is proud to serve as a leading and founding member of New Jersey United for Marriage.
Couples like Ashley and Gabriela have waited long enough to have their relationships respected by the state where they live. For ten years, they have built a life and a family together in New Jersey, and it's time for their family to be granted the same respect - and the same protections on both the federal and state level - as all others in New Jersey.
"We are proud to stand our ground and work toward equality in New Jersey," Ashley said. "We want to join in the fight so that our state extends the freedom to marry to all."
All photography by the amazing Emily & Cassidy at Wren & Field Photography. Read more about Ashley and Gabriela on the Wren & Field Photography blog.