Newly married lesbian couple from Monroeville proceed in unknown legal territory

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Shannon Wilson had the ring. She had a reservation at Nakama on the South Side for Thanksgiving weekend. She had a plan.

But then the slow jam of Jagged Edge's "Let's Get Married" came on the car radio while she and her girlfriend, Mandy Mack, waited for french fries in the drive-thru lane at McDonald's, and the words tumbled out of her mouth.

"She reaches into her purse and pulls out a box," Mandy says, laughing. "My fries are hanging out the window -- in November. Am I being punked? Are you serious? I made her get down on one knee and redo it at home."

The courtship between Mandy, 34, and Shannon, 32, has gone from a church choir in North Carolina to a move to Pennsylvania to a spur-of-the-moment McDonald's proposal to a justice of the peace in Maryland to a wedding celebration Saturday night in Monroeville.

As their relationship has evolved, so has the landscape for gay marriage. Shannon was "semi-married" once before in North Carolina to someone else with no legal standing. When Mandy told Shannon on Valentine's Day two years ago that she wanted to marry her, she envisioned it as a personal and relationship milestone -- not in terms of legal documents and tax benefits.

But as it happened, their marriage plans have hardly kept up with current events. When Shannon ordered the ring, she was thinking about a Washington, D.C., wedding. By the time they were engaged, Maryland had approved gay marriage too -- a Cumberland wedding would be closer than D.C. and had a shorter waiting period.

The March 15 ceremony gave them everything they'd wanted personally -- Shannon took Mandy's last name as her own.

"Even though we were in the courthouse, it was still in the eyes of God," says Shannon. But because Pennsylvania doesn't have a gay marriage law and the federal government didn't recognize same-sex marriage, it didn't grant them much for practical purposes.

That likely changed Wednesday, when the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, though there is still much to be decided about the fate of couples like them -- who live in states that do not permit same-sex marriages but have gotten married in states that do.

"We still very much live in a patchwork kind of nation," says Susan Sommer of Lambda Legal, a national gay rights organization based in New York City, describing the uncertainty of couples in Shannon and Mandy's situation after the DOMA ruling. Right now, some federal agencies would recognize their marriage and some wouldn't, depending on whether they use a "place of residence" or "place of celebration" standard. But a lot could change in the coming weeks and months, Ms. Sommer says.

The federal government has a hand in everything from student loans to taxes on health insurance to Social Security eligibility. Shannon and Mandy are planning to visit a lawyer when they get back from their honeymoon in North Carolina to set up power of attorney and other legal documents. They also hope to gain some clarity on the Supreme Court decision's impact on them -- though it might not be readily available.

"Before, at least, you could clearly know the federal government wasn't going to recognize your marriage," joked Anthony Infanti, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and author of "Everyday Law for Gays and Lesbians and Those Who Care About Them."

"Now, you don't know when it does and when it doesn't and how's that going to work," he said.

• • •

Mandy spotted Shannon singing in a church choir in Charlotte, N.C. She joined the church band just to be near her at rehearsals. They were both in other relationships at the time, but started talking via Facebook in the spring of 2010. That Christmas, they had their first date and on New Year's they became an official couple.

"I was always told that what you do on New Year's, that is how the year will play out," says Mandy, who told Shannon by Valentine's Day that she wanted to marry her.

Shannon demurred, and months later moved back to Monroeville, where her family lived, after she lost her job in North Carolina. The two kept talking every day and by January 2012, Mandy moved up to Monroeville to join her. They work together at the Lash Group health care consulting firm in Monroeville and spend virtually every moment together -- the farthest apart they get might be when Shannon goes online while Mandy plays video games.

"And half the time I want her to watch me," says Mandy.

"And I fall asleep," says Shannon.

After the McDonald's proposal, they enlisted the help of Pittsburgh wedding-planning firm Enhanced Creativity to help them with details. The firm has prepared for an influx of same-sex wedding demand by recently starting a same-sex division of their wedding-planning business.

Same-sex weddings require more detailed planning, says Eric Toal, who heads that division, because the wedding ceremony must happen out of state. But otherwise, they're quite similar. Shannon wore a white dress Saturday night; Mandy who often wears a bow tie in her daily wardrobe, wore a tux and an ascot. The two invited close family and friends, cut a cake and danced to Kevon Edmonds' "A Girl Like You," in the Holiday Inn Pittsburgh-Monroeville decorated in black and turquoise.

Even before DOMA, and even before states began to legalize gay marriage, Mandy and Shannon knew they wanted marriage, or something like it. "As girls, we were taught you're going to grow up, get a job, have kids, a house, a car, all that stuff -- that's something that's been instilled in Mandy and me since we were younger. Those were the ideas that we were told we were going to do growing up and that's what we wanted, and that includes marriage."

In some cases, acceptance of their lifestyles from their families came quickly. In other cases, it's taken more time. But just as public opinion and legal status about gay marriage has changed quickly in recent years, so have the opinions of those close to them. Shannon's grandmother ripped up the invitation to her first wedding to the other person, she says, but was there for the celebration Saturday night.

They plan to start looking for a house later this year and to start trying to conceive a baby next month. In preparation for pregnancy, Shannon has lost about 70 pounds -- but the pair wanted to get married first.

"We are very traditional in things that we like to do -- that's how we were raised," says Shannon. The two were raised with a strong religious foundation and are currently active in the JUDAH Fellowship Christian Church on the North Side.

"Just because we're two women living together doesn't mean we can't keep being traditional. We don't know how not to be, to tell the truth."

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Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308. First Published June 30, 2013 4:00 AM


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