South Fayette couple 'validated' by court's ruling
May 21, 2014 12:34 AM
Susan Whitewood reacts as her parter, Deb, opens a text telling them of the Federal Court ruling overturning Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriages. The Whitewoods have been a couple for more than 20 years.
By Max Radwin and Lexi Belculfine / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
From outward appearances, Tuesday was much like any other day at the home that Susan and Deb Whitewood share in South Fayette.
Their daughter Kate, 16, and 3-year-old son Landon played on a jungle gym that the family had just installed in the backyard.
"You have to teach him not to stand in front of the swing like that!" Susan Whitewood yelled to Kate as she sat beside her partner, Deb, on a patio while their three children played.
Gay couple reacts to same-sex marriage ruling
Deb and Susan Whitewood of South Fayette, one of 11 gay couples seeking to overturn Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriages, react to news that the law was ruled unconstitutional. (Video by Bob Donaldson; 5/20/2014)
While their children played and laughed in the sunshine, the couple waited for a call from their lawyer that would impact their future.
The Whitewoods, who have been together for more than 20 years, were the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's Defense of Marriage Act.
Susan Whitewood previously told U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, who was hearing the case, that her family had spent more than $10,000 fighting Pennsylvania's marriage law. They take their power of attorney papers with them everywhere, Susan said, because otherwise they cannot make legal health decisions should one of them end up in the hospital.
"We're certainly hoping for the Social Security piece because as we get older we're thinking about retirement," Susan said. "I've worked full time our entire married life and Deb's raised the kids her entire married life. That's a big thing -- should something happen to me and she would get my benefits, that's huge for us."
So when the Whitewood household was called Tuesday with news of the court decision, Susan had her fingers crossed.
Deb answered the phone and repeated their lawyer's announcement to Susan: Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage Act had been struck down. They embraced, kissed and hugged their children.
"For all the people that said 'You shouldn't' and 'You couldn't,' this is awesome," Deb said, "We're validated."
The Whitewoods met in 1991 at a graduation party. Since then, the couple has changed their names from "White" and "Underwood" to "Whitewood," joined in a civil union in Vermont and established second-parent adoption for each of their children. They officially married in Maryland in October 2013.
Having established familial and legal ties in every way they could, Deb Whitewood said that the Pennsylvania decision is more about validation.
"It's just seeing that our family will be recognized no longer as second-class citizens in the state of Pennsylvania," Deb said. "That we're treated equally as our neighbors and friends and family members who are married."
Meanwhile, plaintiff Fredia Hurdle was getting the word from her daughter, Shana Outland, who called from Virginia.
"She said, 'Congratulations.' I said, 'For what?' ... She told me that we are now a family, and no one can take that away from us," said Ms. Hurdle, 50, of Crafton Heights.
Ms. Hurdle and her same-sex spouse, Lynn Hurdle, 44, have raised or helped to raise seven children over 23 years. They went through a commitment ceremony in 2009.
"I'm so grateful that my family can be recognized as a true family and not have to endure the bigotry," she said. "The hatred of those who really don't know us but live next door."
Plaintiff Dawn Plummer has been with her spouse, Diana Polson, for 14 years. The couple spent their 20s in California, leaving before same-sex marriage became legal. They went to New York University for graduate school, and left before New York legalized same-sex marriage as well.
Ms. Plummer said that the judge's decision moved faster than she had anticipated. She isn't legally tied to Ms. Polson's youngest son, which makes their family vulnerable should something happen to Ms. Polson. She said the judge's decision was urgent for so many families in similar situations.
The three couples celebrated the landmark decision Tuesday night on Shadyside's Ellsworth Avenue, as hundreds of people -- bedecked with rainbows and smiles -- packed the block for a rally for marriage equality.
The Whitewoods agreed that the celebration was the best part of the day. Deb said she is thrilled younger couples won't have to wait, like they did.
"They can meet their partner, fall in love and get married," she said, "just like all their straight friends."
One such couple is Caitlin Elliott, 29, and Mackenzie Hare, 24, of Shaler, who donned matching shirts that said "Some chicks marry chicks. Get over it."
They're tying the knot Sept. 27, and now their marriage license will be from their home state.
"I never thought I could get married here, because I'm engaged to a woman," Ms. Elliott said, adding they'll likely head to the Marriage License Bureau this afternoon.
They stood in the middle of the crowd, while speakers, like county Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Kevin Acklin, Pittsburgh mayoral chief of staff, addressed the rally.
Before the presentations were over, two founding Delta Foundation board members, Peter Karlovich and Steve Herforth, who have been together for 28 years, took the stage.
Mr. Karlovich knew Mr. Herforth liked surprises, so he asked for a slot on the night's program. Mr. Herforth, meanwhile, was wondering why their fellow board members weren't on stage.
Right there, in front of everyone, Mr. Karlovich proposed.
"I'm on the moon," Mr. Herforth said later, tears in his eyes and holding a flute of champagne. "I've loved this man for 28 years."
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