Every Valentine’s Day, couples, gay and straight, rekindle their love for one another. What might seem so easy for straight couples is so much more difficult for same-sex couples who can’t as easily “tie the knot” as their peers.
For some, like Raleigh’s Angela and Melrose Haas, “getting hitched” meant traveling outside of the U.S.
Despite being in love for 14 years, the Haases never made it official. They met in 1992, when Melrose was a supervisor with a snack food company. When they met they were both in long-term relationships with other people. As those faded out, Melrose and Angela’s love for one another blossomed.
But they never thought about marriage until chatting with a friend in Pinehurst on a sunny, summer afternoon.
“He was questioning why we hadn’t made a serious commitment after 14 years,” Angela says. “It hit home that it was time to ‘shit or get off the pot.’ I looked at her and realized that I never wanted to get off this pot, and I knew it was time.”
Melrose’s passion for golf and the realization that her country club would never recognize the real love of her life convinced her. “Angela and I love to play golf, and Pinehurst Country Club would not allow me to be a member under Angela’s membership unless we were married. It seems like a small thing, but it occurred to me that perhaps we should get married; otherwise, the world would never see us as we already saw ourselves.”
More than paper
Melrose and Angela know their commitment to one another is about more than a piece of paper, although Melrose admits, “Angela is a lawyer. She likes official documents.”
“We wanted to define and clarify (both for ourselves and for those around us) the type of commitment we were making,” Melrose says. “Marriage was the closest word and institution that embodied the level of love and respect that we felt for each other. We wanted the world to know that in a way they could understand.”
Their decision to make the trip to Canada for a March 2008 ceremony was about stability and social and legal acceptance. “The U.S. States were granting and taking away marriage privileges with no rhyme or reason, and I did not want our marriage to be invalidated,” Angela says. “Also, I thought that an international marriage would be recognized before a marriage performed in the States, when push came to shove.”
While having the marriage license doesn’t really change the way they look at their relationship, Angela knows that society and the community around her give special meaning to the word. “When we are with others, and I introduce Melrose as my wife, it gives me the sense that others will recognize her as my wife, not as my girlfriend. There is a societal belief that when you are dating someone, you are not as committed as when you are married.”
Angela says Toronto was the closest place outside the U.S. to get an official marriage. “I had been to Toronto before and loved the city,” she says. “There is no language barrier there, and I thought it would feel most like being in the states than any other location.”
Melrose liked the idea of knocking out two firsts with one trip. “I had never been out of the country before and I had never been married before,” she says.
Toronto having no residency requirement certainly helped their decision to travel there. But where there were few requirements for marriage, there were obstacles once returning back home.
Melrose and Angela say that if there ever comes a time when their relationship ends, Toronto will require that at least one of them live there for a year before petitioning for divorce. Since North Carolina doesn’t recognize marriages between same-sex couples, the couple would never be able to get a divorce her.
“If we ever wanted to break up, one of these two Southerners would have to spend a year living in Canada,” Melrose says. “How’s that for a commitment?”
Once the couple returned to North Carolina, they had to jump through legal hoops to ensure their out-of-state, out-of-nation, unrecognized-but-legal-elsewhere marriage would receive at least some of the protections the law can offer here.
“We hired an attorney to draft our wills, health care powers of attorney, and general powers of attorney, as well as a joint trust (to ensure that our property would go where we wanted it to after the death of the survivor of us), Angela says.
The couple also opened up joint banking accounts, named each other the as beneficiaries of their life insurance policies and communicated their wishes to friends and families. With one attorney in the mix, it certainly wasn’t as difficult as it could have been.
“We tried to follow all of the advice that Angela dispenses to her GLBT clients who come in seeking to legally and financially safeguard their relationships,” Melrose says. “We examined all of the benefits, rights, privileges, and responsibilities that automatically come with marriage in the U.S. and we tried to create those same benefits, rights, privileges, and responsibilities through a series of legal documents and contracts.”
For some same-sex couples without the financial resources or legal knowledge to obtain such protections, legally-recognized marriage could go a long way.
Angela and Melrose, however, encourage every committed LGBT couple to seek assistance from legal professionals.
“I would say to focus on your intent and then seek legal advice and assistance from professionals in manifesting that intent,” Melrose tells couples. “For example, if you intend for your partner to be a parent to your children, don’t assume that just living your life as a two-parent family will accomplish this goal. Seek professional guidance on the contracts and documents that are available for you in order to make your intent clear to the world.”
She adds, “GLBT law is still a very new area, but it’s important that couples make their intentions clear. Essentially you’re saying, ‘The world (or the law) may not be willing or able to define my relationship or my family, so I’m going to define it for the world.’
“You have to put your intent out there and wait for the law to catch up.”