Meet 5 amazing couples talking about equality, love, and their big gay illegal weddings

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) teamed up with the Purpose Foundation, a group that specializes in using technology to create social change, to advocate for marriage equality in a unique way—the contest, "My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding." LGBT couples living in states that don't have marriage equality entered for a chance to win $5,000 towards an out-of-state dream wedding and an opportunity to bring attention to the cause.

Voters picked their five favorite couples and the winners were flown to New York City this week to celebrate. GLAAD scored an interview with each of them about their stories, finding love, overcoming obstacles, and their elaborate plans on how to spend the cash prize.

Now there's a new contest in place--you can win a trip for two to NYC to crash the couples' wedding reception. You are entered to win when you sign the couples' guestbook at weddings.aclu.org. The guestbooks will then be delivered to the governors of the winning couples' states by the newlyweds themselves.

Humberto Niebla & Rafael Vasquez, Arizona

RV: We were at a party and we didn't know each other but we met on Myspace. After a while, we said "let's go eat sushi." He'd never had sushi, and I'm like, "I'll take you to this nice sushi place I know of." So, we order, like, $100 worth of sushi that day, and afterwards, we just went back to my place, we watched Devil Wears Prada. I think that night really got me to fall in love with him—like, love at first site. His heart was beating super loud.

HN: I was so nervous.

RV: We were at dinner. You could hear his heartbeat. That's how loud. It was just incredible how loud his heart was beating. And we just started hanging out every day, and then I was waiting for him to make it official. I'm the more nurturing one. I wanted him to ask me out and to propose. He finally made it official a year later. We've now been together for now, it's gonna be six years, on July 23.

What's a hurdle you've faced in your relationship?

HN: I was born in Mexico. I moved here when I was three, so I never got that residency. I just got my work permit two years ago and I've been able to work legally in the states. That's my biggest hurdle, the fact that I can't get a driver's license or a state ID.

RV: In-state tuition.

HN: In-state tuition. I can't go to school because it's—

RV&HN: super expensive.

HN: Yeah. That's one of our biggest hurdles. I think, even with all that negativity, and all those hurdles, we still just make it work and try to make the best of it.

RV: It really hurts me seeing him struggle. He only started working a year and a half ago, and he's always been wanting to work. He just can't. He's not what [some would call] a US citizen. Thankfully, [because of certain legislation from] President Obama and he's able to work. We're just hoping for the best for the future.

Why did you enter the "My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding" contest?

HN: Our friend actually told us about it. We thought it would be a great opportunity to take the next step and actually--

HN&RV: Get married, yeah.

HN: We've always talked about it, so what better way to do it than with the ACLU and in this contest? And, not just get married, but bring awareness to marriage equality to the whole country.

HN&RV: Especially in Arizona.

RV: Arizona has gotten a little bit of negativity in the last few months, and just prove that there is a lot of the LGBT community that want somebody's back, they don't want just to ignore Arizona just because of negativity, they want positivity for other people who---I mean, it's not their fault. They still should be treated equally and should recognize or love, not matter who they love.

HN: AZ gets such a bad rep, that I think with this, it'll bring more positivity to the state.

How will you spend the $5,000?

RV: Other than cover the costs of the wedding, I think, for me, the one thing that I'm gonna do immediately is file for documents for him. Right away, because it's federal, we'll be able to get him his residency, his driver's license; he'll be treated like a normal US citizen. It's going to just completely change his life because of college, driving, the smallest little details.

HN: On top of that, we're obviously going to go shopping [laughs].

RV: We want really nice suits for our wedding.

Finish the sentence, "the whole country needs marriage equality because…"

HN: Love is love.

RV: It doesn't matter who you love. Our love is the same as everyone else's.

 

Maryja Mee & Tamara Sheffield, North Carolina

MM: We met in college. We both worked for housing. It was my first year, basically my first week, before everyone came back, and Tamara was there. And we just started hanging out. But we both had boyfriends at the time.

TS: We're each other's first girlfriends.

MM: That was 24 years ago.

TS: If you were to ask friends we went to college with now, they would say, "you guys were dating for 9 months and didn't even know." And then flash forward 19 years later, we go visit the city of New Orleans and we were hanging out at one of our friend's bar, we started talking about it--and next thing we know--

MM: "Hey, Our anniversary is on a Saturday night next year--"

MM&TS: "Our 20th anniversary! We should get married."

TS: I called her sister and told her. On our 19th's anniversary, we went and got rings… We had a ceremony on our 20th anniversary with our family and friends, so now we're just looking forward to the legal recognition that we can't have in our home state. Our trip will be back to NY to do that.

What's a hurdle you've faced in your relationship?

MM: The steps you have to go through to make sure you're covered, like getting---

TS: Power of attorney, health care.

MM: And just to make sure you're covered that way. You have to get your home loans in a certain way to make sure you have the right of survivorship. Like, our first home loan, we didn't, [because] our lawyer didn't realize we were a couple. We were just a couple of girls buying a house together, and so he put that on there. So there's things you have to be aware of because if it's right of survivorship, you wouldn't have to pay taxes on it, whereas if we're just buying a house together and she dies, we have to pay tax on it.

TS: That one little law alone bankrupts thousands and thousands of gay couples across the country, because they're not afforded the same right that two strangers can get married in five minutes with. Literally, we built a life together for 24 years. It's not fair that we should have to bankrupt one another if one of us were to pass away. Those are the kinds of things you have to safeguard against.

MM: Those are the things you have to be aware of and make sure you take care of. A lot of people don't, and we didn't for years.

TS: Well, we knew, but we just didn't know. We're both very fortunate to work for two companies that are diverse and inclusive, and we've never had to be concerned about someone finding out you're gay and getting fired for it. That happens all over the state of North Carolina…That won't happen to us, so it's easier for us to be out and not have to worry about it. A lot of people can't be as brave because they can't risk that. We have some safety nets there that we're fortunate to have that a lot of people don't have.

Why did you enter the "My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding" contest?

TS: One of our friends is a huge [host of the contest] Tim Gunn fan. She sent us a message that said, "Oh my gosh, you have to enter this contest." So we pull it up on the iPad, we're looking at some of the couples, and we're like "oh that looks fun, we might as well enter it." It has been ridiculously fun and it's been great to meet other couples who are in. That's been a big win today.

How will you spend the $5,000?

TS: The big crazy, over the top piece—we don't know how this is going to get pulled off—we want to get Stevie Nicks to officiate.

MM: That might cost more than $5,000 [laughs].

TS: I guess every couple has a song, but our song is "Dreams," and we would love for her to officiate and maybe sing that, you know, because we danced to that at our ceremony.

Finish the sentence, "the whole country needs marriage equality because…"

MM: Everyone is equal.

TS: No imaginary line should keep two people that love each other from being recognized. It's an imaginary line. It's all about marriage equality, and to be validated as, "Yes, you are a real citizen, and you are a real couple." You get tired of feeling like a second class citizen.

 

Brian Jenson & Jeromy Manke, Nevada

JM: One of the first times that we were hanging out, a friend of Brian's wanted to show me something on his phone, so she unlocked his phone—Brian's standing right there—and the first thing that pops up is my Facebook page.

BJ: I got caught Facebook stalking [laughs]. That kind of opened the door for us, though, it gave me the "in" to be more honest.

JM: The next time we were hanging out, I dropped him off, and he kissed me and said, "you're going to be trouble." So that was pretty cute.

BJ: Then he went to Vegas for a trip. It was the first month or so that we'd been dating, and the first time we'd really been apart. He had one of his friends deliver to my salon my favorite coffee and a note that said, "I want to make sure that you're smiling." We actually still have that note framed in our house, it's still there. The way we got engaged, it was really awesome. We took a trip to Europe, backpacked for about 6 weeks, and Jeremy decided to book a room in castle in Spain. So, I figured that was a perfect opportunity to have a fairytale moment.

JM: So, he asked me to go for a walk. It was at night. We walked along the wall that overlooks the city, and I was being all--Brian calls it "playful," I call it "stupid,"—and I'm like, "let's throw things down this well," or whatever, and I turned around, and he was down on one knee, and he asked me to marry him. I was so shocked…but he had the ring and everything. How could I say no?

What's a hurdle you've faced in your relationship?

JM: Both of us overcoming religious hurdles happened early in our lives.

BJ: Before we met.

JM: For sure. I think that helped us become the people who we are today, which I think is really great.

BJ: It made our relationship easier, too, because at that point, our families---it was kind of said and done already. Everything was on a happier note.

JM: It really paved the way for general acceptance from our relatives, which has been great. It's added so much to our relationship, having that support. But a hurdle? We have the little things, all the time. I can be kinda naggy, and definitely more organized [laughs].

BJ: Like with any relationship, you just have those little things.

Why did you enter the "My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding" contest?

JM: I'm extremely involved. Brian would probably say I'm addicted to organizations…I looked at this as an opportunity to help promote marriage equality, especially Nevada, where it's illegal. Brian loved the idea.

BJ: I was never involved before being with Jeremy…he's really inspired me to be on boards and help out with events, so when this came about, at first, I don't think we looked at it as an aspect of such a large social movement. At the time we were looking at it like it was more playful…but now…it's so surreal that we're in the middle of social change for our future, for our kids, for their kids. It's crazy.

JM: I think it's great that it's brought such awareness back to Nevada…to see the amount of support that we got has been really huge. Just walking in the grocery store and have people walk up to you and say, "we saw you in the paper! We're voting for you!"

BJ: Some of these people are very conservative. Just having that alone is big. Changing that one person is just huge.

How will you spend the $5,000?

JM: We've been working super hard at planning our wedding.

BJ: But we kind of lost the opportunity to have in our budget money for wedding rings. To have something that I think is a symbol of that whole experience, a memento. I would love for part of that money to go towards just a little something.

Finish the sentence, "the whole country needs marriage equality because…"

JM: Our country was built on the ideal that everyone would be given equal access to the same rights and the same opportunities. Marriage is not only an institution that provides rights, it also provides opportunity for two people to join together in a committed relationship, and celebrate that commitment to each other, and help to make the world a better place through that happiness that they're able to create in their relationship

 

Jeremiah Pyant & Jeff Robertson, Texas

JP: I'm a flight attendant. I was working a flight from Atlanta from Milwaukee and he was on the plane, and we started conversing. I guess he kind of noticed me. We exchanged numbers and through phone calls and Facebook and texting, we got to know each other more. I had another layover in Milwaukee and that's when we finally started dating. And the rest is history.

What's a hurdle you've faced in your relationship?

JP: With us living in Texas, we had a domestic partnership in Wisconsin. It doesn't carry over state boundaries. With my job, I do have same-sex partner benefits, which is a very good thing, but my domestic partnership doesn't mean anything because I live in Texas. If we had to move to another state, such as California where they allow, I would have to fill out more information. That was kind of a hurdle, having to fill out more paperwork to have benefits. But now we are getting married, we do have partner benefits, regardless of whatever state we're in.

Why did you enter the "My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding" contest?

JR: We entered the contest originally because we liked the idea of, one, $5,000. Secondly, it allows you to have a creative outlet to shine the light on the issue. You get a lot of the news articles and things coming out about different court cases, but this was different. It hits those hearts and those minds, and it puts a face onto it. And it's really creative. It spoke to us, especially, because Jeremiah's gone all the time. He lands in a different state every other day. If we were legally married, we'd be divorced about six or seven times throughout the day. Depending on where is laying over for the night, we're divorced for the whole night…This patchwork of where it's legal and where it's not, it's us all day. We live that patchwork all day long.

How will you spend the $5,000?

JP: We have planned to do a hot air balloon celebration. We're going to go to El Paso, Texas, and take a hot air balloon across the border to New Mexico and have a wonderful celebration at 15,000 feet.

JR: It's that high up!? I didn't know we were going that high! I didn't know we were going that high!

JP: How high did you think we were going?

JR: I don't know! I thought we'd get a little ladder and climb back down [laughs]! Okay! We'll have champagne while we're up there [laughs].

JP: I'm up for the challenge. I'm with the person I love.

Finish the sentence, "the whole country needs marriage equality because…"

JR: It's more than just a gay issue. It's a human rights, a civil rights issue. We [our country] consider ourselves the leader of the world, so why not be the leader on an issue that is so prevalent in our time right now? I think that our country could set the example and show that, we say we're all for one, one for all, so let's be that. Let's live that truth.

Watch their engagement video that went viral!

 

Megan Smith & Lindsey Wagner Smith, Tennessee

MS: I took her to the park one day to "take pictures by the river."

LS: It's the park where we had our first date.

MS: So, we had our first date there about three years ago. I took her to this bridge where we had our first date. I had tea candles lined all the way down and about 1,000 white rose pedals, and I had music with some of our favorite songs and a trellis at the end that was decorated with a ring box. We get there, and she was just overwhelmed, and we walked down in silence, just listening to the music. It was like a fairy tale. We get down there, and she says "I do! I will! I mean yes!", but I hadn't asked yet. Then I did, and the rest is history. That was in September. We got married in Tennessee on Sunday.

LS: We were coming up on the bridge, and I could hear something going on. Then there was a photographer clicking pictures of us. I was like, "that's odd."

MS: And I was like, "let's go check it out."

LS: I just saw the set up and I just knew…I was so excited. [We've been together] just over three years.

What's a hurdle you've faced in your relationship?

MS: Which one do you want?

LS: Initially, there was a little bit of family--

MS: We are in the south, in the Bible Belt. They say Tennessee is the buckle of the Bible Belt. So we face some opposition from our family. I don't really have a lot of the friends that I had years ago. Not everyone that we encounter is supportive, so the people in our life really are special and mean a lot to us because they love us for who we are and that makes a huge difference.

LS: We do have a lot of great, supportive people in our lives. And a lot of our family is supportive. Like, a lot more of your family has come around.

MS: My family's starting to come around. We just try to surround ourselves with people that matter, people that support us and are a positive influence in our life, and just get the negativity out, because we face that from so many directions. Not only from people that we know, but from people we don't know. With our wedding, we ran into that a lot with vendors that didn't want to work with us. We just found an officiate—

MS&LS: Two weeks before the ceremony.

MS: I don't know if you call it discrimination or hurdles or obstacles, but we always overcome them.

LS: I feel like there's so many things that other people take for granted, like to be able to just walk in and change your name, or to have your papers, to have your marriage legally recognized, to get all those rights and protections.

MS: We had to pay and go to chancery court…

LS: We had to go through so many steps and the state that we live in could choose to override this paperwork if they wanted to in the event that something did happen to one of us.

Why did you enter the "My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding" contest?

MS: Marriage equality is really important to us. We started a non-profit called TN Marriage Equality last June after we had a discriminatory experience in Waynesville, North Carolina. Apparently, we were supposed to know not to go there…We've just been really passionate about equality since then, whether it's in the workplace, or for marriage.

LS: Our organization's centered on marriage because we just feel like if that gets passed in Tennessee then the rest of the rights are just going to—

MS&LS: Trickle down.

MS: We've helped with trying to get non-discrimination ordinances passed for equal benefits.

LS: Any steps we can take towards equality.

MS: Somebody has to do this. It's not that a lot of people don't want to help, it's that they don't know how.

LS: And a lot of people don't know what the laws are. I encountered that a lot.

MS: It's not that they hate us, they just don't understand why it's important. So we try to not only advocate, but educate.

How will you spend the $5,000?

LS: We're really looking forward to doing our legal wedding. For us, the ceremony we had in Tennessee was our wedding, but it doesn't legally count. I think the plan is to go to Washington, DC.

MS: On the Supreme Court steps

LS: Horse-drawn carriage through the mountains.

MS: We're gonna have our big white dresses with the trains comin' down.

LS: We really feel like it makes a bold statement--

MS: Politically.

LS: --That we can go to Washington, DC, get married on the Supreme Court building's steps—

MS&LS: In our nation's capital

LS: --and it will be legally recognized and considered valid, but then we cross imaginary state lines back into Tennessee and we're legal strangers. Our marriage will mean nothing to the state when we go back home.

Finish the sentence, "the whole country needs marriage equality because…"

LS: It's creating a second class citizenship right now.

MS: It makes LGBT people feel like they're second class citizens. It puts us in a different qualification. Especially for those families who have children, it makes those children feel like their family is less significant because their moms or their dads aren't married, so they're not the same as their friends in school when they talk about their parents and their family unit. It makes us a lower class of citizens. To not give us rights that other people have—we're not getting special rights, we just want equal ones.

LS: We're just regular people with jobs and a home and pets and families and—

MS: We're no different than anybody else.

LS: --we just want to be treated the same way other people are and to be allowed to live and love the same way other people do without the government make us feel like we're less than someone else.

MS: It won't infringe on anybody's rights to give everyone the rights that some already have.

 

Congratulations to the newlyweds!

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