For hundreds of years, loving and committed couples around the world have stood in front of their family members and friends to declare their love for each other and exchange wedding vows. Traditionally, the vows are quite simple: "I take you to be my spouse, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, from this day forward until death do us part."
For Jen Roper and Angelique Neuman, these traditional vows carried an urgent, tragic significance: In December 2012, Jen was diagnosed with an advanced aggressive brain cancer, and doctors told her she had 18 months to live. The couple, after over 21 years together, knew that they were entering a new stage of their life much too early - a challenging stage where Angelique would be caring for Jen in sickness. They endured doctor visits, surgery, and Jen's recovery from a stroke shortly after her diagnosis. Jen began receiving in-patient treatment in an assisted living facility in Santa Fe. "Our lives had changed forever," Angelique said after the diagnosis. "I knew that my time with the love of my life would be cut short."
Throughout all of this stress, Jen and Angelique felt an even greater sense of insecurity: Because they live in New Mexico, where laws on whether same-sex couples can marry are unclear and unstable, they were unmarried. Without legal respect for their 21 years of love and commitment, they feared being denied the state and federal protections that all other married couples receive. They feared that if Jen were to pass away, Angelique would not be listed as the surviving spouse. They feared for the protection of their children, three brothers who they adopted from the New Mexico foster care system. And because of Jen's illness, they were unable to travel to a state where same-sex couples have the freedom to marry, where they at least be able to access many of the responsibilities and benefits that marriage triggers at the federal level.
This urgent feeling of insecurity prompted Jen and Angelique to work with the ACLU of New Mexico and the National Center for Lesbian Rights to join a lawsuit seeking the freedom to marry in their state. They joined on August 21, filing a request for an emergency order to grant the couple the freedom to marry. Days later, the state trial court declared that same-sex couples are included in New Mexico's marriage law and that county clerks in two populous New Mexico counties, including Santa Fe, should begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Jen and Angelique were overjoyed. They married as soon as possible, on August 23 at a regional cancer center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Jen is receiving chemotherapy treatments.
“It was wonderful and overwhelming," Angelique said. “The part of our vows where we pledged to care for each other in sickness and in health really hit home for me. It means so much to me to know Jen is my wife, not only in my heart, but in the eyes of our friends, family, and community as well.”
"I was so privileged at being able to be officially and completely recognized as her wife," Jen said. "I feel extremely privileged over the support that we're getting. Thank you so much."
This month has surely been a joyous fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Jen and Angelique. But it is unacceptable that fulfilling that dream required a lawsuit from Jen and Angelique. It shouldn't take an emergency order from a judge in response to a woman's illness to finally allow a loving, committed same-sex couple the chance to receive their marriage license in the state they have called home for so long. It shouldn't take a terminal diagnosis to show judges and elected officials that same-sex couples across the country are hurting because they are denied the freedom to marry. It shouldn't take an urgent life-or-death situation to demonstrate that it's time for marriage across the United States of America.
“We are so very happy to be officially married after 21 years together,” Jen said. But she explained that it's time for the freedom to marry once and for all across the state of New Mexico. Couples like Jen and Angelique know that it's time for a decisive, definitive, state-wide end to marriage discrimination in New Mexico.
“It was a dream come true for us and for all the other couples who married today," Jen explained. "Now, we ask that the courts move quickly to ensure that our marriages are fully recognized and respected by the state."