UPDATED October 2013: Since Nikki & Sue shared their story with Freedom to Marry, same-sex couples in New Jersey won the freedom to marry when a judge in NJ ruled in favor of marriage in October 2013.
Every year, Sue Bavineau and Nikki Tongg look forward to the week when they fly from their home in North Plainfield, NJ to Maui, Hawaii, where Nikki is from and was raised.
"Maui is a special place for us," Nikki explained. "The first time Sue came home with me in 2005, she was instantly hooked! She embraced the Aloha spirit and brought it home with her to the east coast."
This year, the couple's visit back to Nikki's home was especially important and exciting: finally, after 11 years together, Nikki and Sue were exchanging vows and promising their commitment to each other.
On August 22, 2013, in a gorgeous Maui pasture overlooking the famous surf break known as Jaws, in front of just over 20 of their closest friends and family members, the women formalized their commitment to each other. Nikki's sister Alisa is a celebrant, so she was able to devise the perfect ceremony to suit her sister and sister-in-law.
The ceremony included a ritual called a Circle of Love, a physical representation of the support from Sue and Nikki's friends and family members; a wedding ring blessing; an exchange of leis, the symbol of love; and a retelling of the couple's love story - the story of how they became close friends in Boston over 10 years, fell in love soon after, and now own two businesses in New Jersey, including a dog walking and pet sitting business and a holistic pet shop called, adorably, Faux Paws Wholesome Pet Shop.
The ceremony was beautiful and the women knew how special it was for them to be able to promise their lives to each other in the place where Nikki grew up. But it was frustrating to see that no matter how gorgeous their ceremony was and no matter how many ties they have to Nichole's home state, their commitment is not legally respected by the state of Hawaii.
When they returned home to New Jersey, too, they knew that they would continue to be viewed as single.
"After eleven years together, we knew that we wanted to have a wedding for us, even though our marriage could not be legal in Hawaii or New Jersey," Nikki said. "But we feel married and take our vows seriously. We cannot wait until the day that we can be legally recognized for our marriage - and in the meantime, it's frustrating to be stuck in this limbo of being married-but-legally-not."
"It's a weird feeling to tell people about our big day in Hawaii, and have the first thing out of so many people's mouths be, 'Is it legal there?'," Sue said. "It should be a simple 'congratulations.'"
Now that the central part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down as unconstitutional and the ruling is being implemented with broad impact for married same-sex couples in every state, Sue and Nikki know that more than ever, it's time for the freedom to marry in New Jersey and Hawaii.
They haven't joined together in civil union in either state, since they know that even though this lesser family status extends some of the protections of marriage to them, it's not good enough.
"It's not the same," Nikki said. "It's not equal. Marriage is understood - with civil union, people don't know what it is. You have to explain it. With marriage, you don't have to explain it...there's an understanding, and that's why we've held off on getting a civil union."
Now, they're considering taking a trip to one of the 13 states or Washington, D.C. where same-sex couples can marry, in order to win federal respect for their relationship. But they know that they still need the freedom to marry at home.
"The idea of having to jump through these hoops and still not be legally married where it counts - at home - stinks," Nikki said. "We want to be able to be married in our home state and not have to take all of these extra measures to get around the system. We want to be able to say we are married with no asterisk - no necessary explanation of not being 'technically' married."
Nikki and Sue are excited for the day when New Jersey extends legal respect to their commitment of 11 years. They've already had an amazing ceremony in a picture-perfect setting...but they still need to be married at home.
"Everything with our wedding was 99.9% perfect," Sue said. "Now it just needs to be legal."
Sue and Nikki shared an excerpt from their ceremony with Freedom to Marry - the section, read by Nikki's sister Alissa, just before the women exchanged vows and said "I do." Read the sweet vows:
* * *
You have known each other from the first glance of acquaintance to this point of commitment. At some point, you decided to marry. And from that moment of "yes" to this moment of "yes," you have been making commitments in an informal way.
All of those conversations that were held in a car, or over a meal, or during long walks - all those conversations that began with "When we're married" and continued with "I will" and "you will" and "we will" - all those late-night talks that included "someday" and "somehow" and "maybe" - and all those promises that are unspoken matters of the heart. All these common things, and more, are the real process of a wedding.
Now, you will make each other formal promises, symbolized by the vows you will exchange. These vows are a way of saying to one another, "You know, all those things that we've promised and hoped and dreamed? Well, I meant it all. Every word."
Now, you shall say a few words that will take you across a threshold of life, and things between you will never be quite the same.