On a hot summer day in 2009, Tim Hamilton picked up the ringing phone in the retail store he owns and operates with his longtime partner Ron Wooten in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was greeted with the cheery voice of Catalina Kulczar, who identified herself as a regular patron of the store and a photographer who wanted to meet with Tim to discuss a long-gestating idea that she was inspired by.
Over coffee, Catalina explained to Tim her idea of photographing loving same-sex couples with the hope of highlighting the love and commitment that same-sex couples in Charlotte share and increasing support for the freedom to marry in the state. Over the previous few months, Catalina had watched as Tim and Ron ran their store together in Charlotte, and she was inspired by their more than 20 years of commitment.
Tim and Ron worked with Catalina to find other photo subjects, and by the end of the year, the project had taken shape as Let Love Reign.
"It was a fantastic and emotional day for each of us who participated," Tim said. "I anticipated it would be fun, but I didn’t realize how powerful it would be to proudly stand as a couple before the photographer and the video camera and tell our story."
The men’s portrait was featured on the cover of Creative Loafing magazine in Charlotte and then, in the fall of 2010, Tim and Ron saw their faces projected onto a billboard along one of the busiest roads in Charlotte, declaring, "less propositions, more proposals,” a response to the 2008 constitutional amendment Proposition 8, which stripped same-sex couples of the freedom to marry in California.
Tim and Ron have lived in North Carolina for much of their adult lives. They met there in 1985, both recent college graduates. They danced together at a bar, felt a connection, and when Tim returned home, he called Ron, and the men spoke on the phone until the early hours of the morning.
"We have been together ever since," Tim said. "We were so instantly comfortable together that we became a couple before either of us realized it."
As the years passed and states began to pass laws allowing same-sex couples the freedom to marry, the couple knew that they didn't want to leave their state in order to get married.
"It's a matter of principle and of respect for our relationship as legitimate, important and legal," Tim explained. "We would (and will) marry when it is legal to do so in North Carolina, and we look forward to doing so, but we have no interest in marrying elsewhere - in a state where it is currently legal - only to return home where it is not recognized. How is that a marriage? Here I'm married, there I'm not? Seriously?"
It was disheartening, then, when in 2012 North Carolina passed Amendment One, an amendment that denied any and all legal protections, including marriage, to same-sex couples.
"From the introduction of the bill in the State House, to the public vote, all of it was surprising, disappointing, and a little frightening," Tim said.
Still, the couple recognizes that the state of North Carolina - and the rest of the country - has shifted substantially on marriage since the upsetting Amendment One vote. Polling continues to demonstrate growing support for marriage – with a recent poll showing that 62% of North Carolinians under 30 support the freedom to marry. And increasingly, couples like Tim and Ron are speaking up about why marriage matters to them.
Tim and Ron sensed some of that passion from their home state back in 2010, on the night that Catalina unveiled the portraits from Let love Reign at a moving gallery night in Charlotte, when nearly a hundred North Carolinians to witness Catalina's work and celebrate the commitment that same-sex couples across the state share. Among the attendees were Tim’s parents.
"Although they were out of their element and comfort zones – they’re quiet people who don’t draw attention to themselves – they were there to support Ron and me," Tim explained.
For Tim, the greatest moment of the night, and perhaps of his experience with Let Love Reign, came at the end of the evening exhibit.
"From across the room and without his knowing," Tim said, "I watched as my 85-year-old father quietly added his signature to a wall banner calling for the defeat of Amendment One."