Every couple has a date on the calendar that bears a special significance - the day they met, the day they first said "I love you," the day they married. For Tom Harris and Brian Mahieu, who live in Fulton, Missouri, July 31 will always be that special date. It's the day that Brian proposed to Tom, back in 2004.
Under a blue moon, Brian and Tom shared a bottle of wine at home, then migrated to the Spring House at Big Spring in Arrowrock, Missouri. Brian, an artist and designer, handed Tom a framed painting with an inscription on the back, a nod to a favorite Christopher Cross song: "Tom, I love you with all my heart. I see all of my tomorrows in your eyes. Spend them with me?"
"We've basically considered ourselves married from that night," Brian said. Because they live in Missouri, they knew that they could not legally marry where they live. "We were married in our hearts, where it matters," they said.
Just a few days after the proposal, in August 2004, Brian, Tom, and the rest of Missouri saw the passage of Constitutional Amendment 2, an amendment pushed through by anti-gay activists to exclude same-sex couples from marriage. Same-sex couples were already excluded from marriage by a state statute.
"Those were my friends who had signs in their yard cheering on Amendment 2," Brian said, remembering yard signs and bumper stickers that screamed Man + Woman = 1. My best friends were pushing this, and that was a powerful thing. Basically, I felt like what people were saying to me in that moment was, 'The person you love does not have as much value as the person I love.'"
Nine years later, Amendment 2 is still a part of Missouri's state constitution. But the country as a whole has taken so many steps forward. Same-sex couples can marry in 13 states and the District of Columbia, the central part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act has been overturned, and public opinion polls across the country - including Missouri, track support at higher than ever.
Brian and Tom saw the Supreme Court ruling as an occasion to finally follow up on their proposal from nine years ago. They traveled to Kirkland, just north of Seattle in Washington state to legally marry, on July 28, 2013. With their marriage license - and with the repeal of the central part of DOMA - saying "I Do" meant that they were finally respected as a committed couple by the federal government. It meant that they would finally have the protections and responsibilities that all married couples have on the federal level. And it meant that the relationship they had committed to nine years before - the marriage they had in their hearts - was finally validated and celebrated by their country.
It was frustrating, then, to return to Missouri and see that their home state offered no legal respect for their marriage.
"When we came back to Missouri, nothing changed," Tom said. They were still not recognized as a married couple. Their family would still be discriminated against in their home state.
Both men have children from previous marriages, including Katie, Tom's biological daughter, pictured here on the night of her high school graduation in 2005. "Tom's kids call us D1 and D2 to stand for Dad 1 and Dad 2," Brian explained, adding, "Katie has always been our biggest supporter." The children have now all graduated from school and have begun their own adult lives. "We're empty nesters now except for our two greyhounds."
As they get older, they look forward to a future where they can live in a state that respects their marriage fully. And they don't feel that they can wait until Missouri extends the freedom to marry to them and all other loving, committed couples in the state.
"We'll move when we can," Tom said, explaining that the couple is not in a financial situation where they are able to pack up their lives and relocate to live in a state that supports and respects their lives. "It's been the five-year plan for the last nine years now to move," Brian joked.
While they continue living in Missouri for the foreseeable future, Brian and Tom - and hundreds of other loving, committed couples in the state - are hurt by Missouri's failure to grant the freedom to marry to all families.
"It's amazing to me that now, after nine years as a couple, people are finally taking us seriously," Brian said. "It's as though they're suddenly realizing that this is real. After the Supreme Court ruling and after we went to Seattle to get married, people are taking us seriously and recognizing us as a couple. That's amazing. That's very healing."
Nine years is a long time to wait for legal respect for your relationship. But it's also a long time for communities across Missouri - and in the 37 other states where same-sex couples cannot marry - to reflect on why marriage matters for all families.
More and more, communities are coming to realize that no one is hurt when all people can share in the freedom to marry - but so many people are hurt when same-sex couples are prohibited. It's time for the freedom to marry in Missouri. It's time for Brian and Tom to celebrate many years of July 31 in a state that honors them. It's time for the freedom to marry nationwide.
Listen to more of Brian and Tom's story HERE.