Gay Couples Face a Mixed Geography of Marriage

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MOSCOW, Idaho – The border with Washington State is just two miles from the home that Henry D. Johnston and his partner, Alex Irwin, own here in western Idaho, but for a gay couple it might as well be a thousand. Over there, just a brisk morning's walk away, same-sex marriage was approved by a majority of statewide voters last fall; over here, the Idaho constitution, through an amendment passed by voters in 2006, says that even a civil union granted elsewhere has no validity.

"Set your clock back," Mr. Johnston said of his daily commute home from a job in Pullman, Wash.

The nation's patchwork geography of marriage laws was not much of an issue when just a few outlier states granted the privilege. But now nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage, with three voting to join the list last fall − Maryland, Washington and Maine − and the Supreme Court could decide this summer whether equal marriage protections are a right under the Constitution.

The Obama administration is expected to file a brief on the question this week. On Monday, a group of prominent Republicans got there first, signing a brief to the court arguing that marriage is a constitutionally guaranteed right.

All that has made the borders, and the sharp disparities between states, more important and complex than ever for gay couples, and for interstate tourism as well. The marriage license office in Clark County, Wash., across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore., had to beef up hours to serve border couples when Washington's new law took effect. The Episcopal Church said last month that the National Cathedral in Washington would soon begin conducting same-sex marriages. But if newlyweds drive home to the city's suburbs in Virginia, any rights granted under the vaulted limestone arches will completely disappear under Virginia's Constitution.

Mr. Johnston and Mr. Irwin, as both proudly gay and proudly Idahoan, said they had thought about taking a Sunday drive to get married, then dismissed the idea out of hand. Marrying across the border and returning home to a place where none of it had legal meaning, they said, or picking up and moving to Washington to obtain marriage protections, would mark equal measures of surrender and defeat. For them, the battle for rights and recognition is to be waged here at home, in a deeply conservative state where same-sex marriage remains, for now, an unlikely dream.

"How are things going to change if people aren't there to help make them change?" said Mr. Irwin, 25, who grew up mostly just across the border in Pullman.

Mr. Johnston, 27, born and raised in an Idaho timber-cutting town, said he rejected the idea of marrying just to make a statement. "The minute we drive across the border it would become invalid and we'd be back to just being two guys who own a house together," he said in an email.

The message is clear, Mr. Johnston added in an interview, that they are staying put to fight. "We're not going anywhere," he said.

Hardly anyone imagines that Idaho and conservative places like it – voters in 30 states have banned same-sex marriage by statute or constitutional amendment − are likely to be moved anytime soon to a full embrace of gay life. The portrait, or caricature, of the American West in films like "Brokeback Mountain" has not entirely faded.

Even adding protections for gay people to Idaho's Human Rights Act has hit a wall, with advocates unable even to get a bill printed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, let alone a public hearing, after years of trying.

But on the local level, the picture is changing, slowly, and again for gay people it comes down to patchwork geography: it is different depending on where you live.

In just the last two months, two Idaho cities, Ketchum and Boise, the largest municipality in the state, have passed nondiscrimination ordinances protecting gay, lesbian and transgender people in housing and employment. Three more communities, including Moscow − Mr. Johnston and Mr. Irwin's hometown – are debating it. Before last December, only one place, the tiny town of Sandpoint in the state's northern panhandle, had enacted such protections.

Changes beyond Idaho's borders, including a subtle shift in policies in Utah by the Mormon Church, which has huge influence in Idaho, have given gay people added resolve to push, and have provided crucial political cover for their supporters. In late 2009, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said it would support nondiscrimination protections for gays in Salt Lake City, the church's headquarters city. About one-fourth of Idaho's population is Mormon, a higher percentage than any state beyond Utah.

"I believe the support of the Mormon Church is key," said John T. Reuter, the former City Council president in Sandpoint, talking about the first nondiscrimination statute. "That the LDS Church supported it in Salt Lake had a ripple effect in Idaho."

With more gay people, especially younger ones, living openly in their communities, the discussion has become less one about a class of people than one about individuals.

"Who gets the credit here is the lesbian and gay community, who have had the courage to come out," said Randy Hall, the mayor of Ketchum, a resort town near Sun Valley that last month passed a nondiscrimination ordinance.

Other people said the personal and the political were melding. That President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage last year, and that majorities of voters in three states did the same, sparked new discussion about Idaho's path. To many younger people, though, what matters is down the block or in the school cafeteria, not across the border.

"I've listened to this national debate," said Lauren McLean, a member of the Boise City Council and co-sponsor of the city's new nondiscrimination law. "But my kids aren't influenced by a national debate," she added. "They just say, 'discrimination isn't okay.' "

Here in Moscow, Mr. Johnston and Mr. Irwin said they were comfortably open about their lives, and even hold hands in public. Last month Mr. Johnston started a two-hour radio show on a local community station, called "Give My Regards to Broadway," and on a recent Sunday he played his favorites from the Broadway hit "La Cage aux Folles."

"It doesn't get any gayer than that," he said, looking up from the microphone as the showstopping number, "I Am What I Am," about the proud assertion of homosexual identity, wailed from the speakers. Mr. Johnston ended the show with a mash note to Mr. Irwin, whom he called the "love of my life."

But Mr. Johnston's message was severely limited in its reach by KRFP radio's tiny 100-watt signal. However fervently expressed in words and music, the show can barely be heard beyond downtown.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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