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Is marriage a right? Rejected by the state, two gay men seek recognition from the church

April 07, 1999
By: ANNA BRUTZMAN
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB 266

JEFFERSON CITY - Johnny Reed and Randy Shannon buy major appliances together. The two men take walks. They cook. They clean. Evenings they watch television, and every day they go to work.

Their life is routine, sometimes even boring.

Early this year, Reed, 34, and Shannon, 29, exchanged marriage vows at a Columbia church with dozens of friends and family in attendance. An ordained minister presided over the service and signed a certificate of holy union.

That certificate holds no legal status at the Boone County Recorders office -- or anywhere in Missouri or the rest of the country.

Ask a marriage-license clerk whether people of the same sex can marry, and the answer will be "No." Ask the clerk which Missouri law bans same-sex marriage, and the answer will be "I don't know."

The Missouri Statutes currently provide no mention of gay marriage. Missouri lawmakers did pass a ban on same-sex marriages a few years ago, but it was struck down by the courts on a technicality.

But the absence of language in the statutes concerning gay marriage has made it impossible for Reed and Shannon to get a marriage license in Boone County.

So why did they get married if it means nothing legally?

"There's more of a commitment," Reed says. Although the legal definition of marriage has no bearing on his personal relationship with Shannon, Reed cites both economic and philosophical reasons why the state should recognize his marriage.

A prohibition on gay marriage reveals the state's intolerance for gays, Reed says, and the ban also prevents him and Shannon from receiving some benefits that go to straight couples.

Many legislators at the Missouri Capitol are not sympathetic to Reed and Shannon's desire for legal recognition.

"Historically this state has recognized some marital unions and not recognized others," says Sen. Dave Klarich, R-St. Louis County, who has introduced legislation this session that would reestablish Missouri law against gay marriage.

"It is the public policy of this state to recognize marriage only between a man and a woman," reads Klarich's bill.

Despite such rumblings in the Capitol building, homosexual couples such as Reed and Shannon continue to take part in public ceremonies showing their love for and commitment to each other.

COURTSHIP

Reed and Shannon, both living in Jefferson City, met each other for the first time in December 1997 at Styx, a Columbia bar.

"People who go to bars look for sex, or they look for long-term relationships," Shannon says. The former, he says, create the stereotype about promiscuous gay men.

"Those are the kind of gay people that make real gay people, civilized gay people, look bad," Shannon says.

The night he met Reed, Shannon stood by a wall. He listened to the music, a beer in his hand. Shannon expected to go home at midnight as usual.

He was not there to meet anybody. Shannon had given up on starting a relationship. He kept going to Styx because he still wanted to be around others like himself and he enjoyed watching the crowd.

Then Reed noticed that Shannon was looking at him. Not being shy, Reed introduced himself.

They got along and made plans for a date. Their compatibility was a surprise for both.

"People are so superficial," Reed says of most people he has met bars.

It would be a quick courtship: Shannon and Reed kept their contact casual at first, deliberately avoiding physical intimacy for the first three months.

But in April, Shannon moved into Reed's apartment. They spent the summer going for walks, sometimes exploring abandoned homesteads.

Reed proposed to Shannon at the end of the summer. He had picked out engagement rings for them both. The following winter they were married.

"We went on our first date on Jan. 16, 1998," Reed says. "It was a year to the day that we got married," Shannon finishes.

MARRIAGE

Their wedding was on a crisp, overcast Saturday. Snow still lay on the ground. Christ the King Agape Church, a small, wooden structure on Hickman Avenue that serves Columbia's gay community, was filled to capacity with the men's friends and family.

Reed waited at the altar, wearing a green and yellow cowboy shirt and bolo tie. He also sported a black cowboy hat, black jeans and boots. Shannon, escorted by his sister, Ronda, slowly marched up the aisle in identical Southwestern-style gear.

Both men had neatly trimmed mustaches and goatees.

They faced each other, maintaining eye contact and holding hands as they recited their vows.

"Would you have this loved one to be joined with you?" the Rev. Tim Price asked each of the men during the 15-minute service.

Reed, usually the solid decision maker of the couple, cried; Shannon, a quiet, observant man, smiled. With vows spoken, the men took off their hats and kissed.

"I announce they are bound in holy union," Price said amid clapping and whistling.

It was a happy day for both men, but with their marriage came frustrations. Shannon wants to change his name in recognition of his marriage to Reed.

"If you show your marriage license, you can get a new driver's license and Social Security card," Shannon says. His certificate of union is not enough for a name change. Shannon could petition to get it changed, but he says he cannot afford it. The Boone County Circuit Court charges $145.

The couple has tried other ways of making their union more apparent in their daily routine. They have a joint checking account, and they consult each other on all financial decisions. Beyond their control, however, are spousal benefits such as health insurance coverage.

Sen. Klarich says that extending to gay couples benefits that now only go to straight couples would be too expensive and complicated in a state that has traditionally not supported gay marriage. Laws making bigamous and incestuous marriages void set the precedent, he says, for the state setting limits on who can and cannot marry.

Besides, he says, the majority of Missourians are not gay and do not support gay marriage.

Klarich is taking these justifications for the present ban on gay marriage a step forward this session. His bill would place anti-gay marriage language in the Missouri statutes.

As Missouri law now stands, he argues, the state may have to recognize a same-sex marriage were it to take place in a state where it is legal -- depending on how the U.S. Surpreme Court ultimately defined the U.S. Constitutional requirement that a state must support contracts from other states.

So far, no state recognizes gay marriages. But there have been been court battles to legalize gay marriages in Hawaii and Vermont -- both unsuccessful.

Although Missouri is not facing an influx of gay couples wearing wedding bands sanctioned in other states, Klarich sees that possibility in the future.

"The bottom line is that the state of Missouri could be compelled through a court of law to recognize another state's policy on the issue," he says.

Klarich's legislation to explicitly prohibit gay marriage already passed unanimously in the Senate last month. It is now waiting for a House vote. The new Missouri law would mirror federal legislation, passed in 1996 as the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies same-sex partners the federal benefits such as Social Security and Medicare that automatically go to man-woman couples.

SOCIETY'S INTOLERANCE

Reed and Shannon say the state and federal restrictions on their way of life are irritating, but they deal with more open hostility every day.

They are used to sidelong glances when buying homosexual literature at the bookstore or when showing affection in public.

"You can walk down the street holding hands," Reed says of heterosexuals. "Can we?"

Straight couples, he says, often get away with more than just holding hands.

"You walk into Wal-Mart, and they are all over each other," Reed says. "It's a double standard. It's grotesque, but I move on." He recalls once kissing Shannon in the car while sitting in traffic and laughs at the stares they got.

"Who's throwing the stones?" asks Shannon.

Categorizing people and calling them names is ridiculous, Reed says.

"We never say, you straight person, you. You hetero!"

An opponent to the gay marriage ban, Mark Reed, draws a connection between people's personal aversion to the gay lifestyle and current law that concerns gays.

A private citizen from St. Louis who has been in a committed gay relationship for 12 years, Reed says that Missouri legislators would perhaps change their minds about gay marriage if they examined their own intolerance.

"Step outside your biases. Walk in another's shoes. See from another's perspective," he urged legislators at a meeting of the Senate Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee earlier this session.

But Missouri's legislature consistently has rejected efforts to "normalize" gay lifestyles. Just earlier this spring the House rejected 31-108 an amendment to repeal Missouri's law making a homosexual act a crime. Columbia's three legislators voted for the amendment to decriminalize homosexuality.

Also, last September the Missouri Supreme Court denied child custody to a lesbian. The court held that sexual orientation was a legitmate factor to consider in awarding custody.

LIFE TOGETHER

While growing up and going into their early adulthoods, Reed and Shannon experienced repeated upheavals.

"A lot of gay people grow up that way -- with rough childhoods," Reed says.

Shannon left home when he was 16. He moved to St. Louis and came out of the closet a few years later. He partied hard when he was there, he says, and regrets much of it. It would take Reed longer to accept that he was gay. He got married when he was 17 to his high-school girlfriend and had two children.

"I knew it wasn't right," he says. He came out in 1989, got a divorce and moved from Missouri to California. Reed blames his parents for his confusion in figuring out what to do with the knowledge that he was attracted to men.

"Everything was hush hush" when he was growing up, Reed says.

Reed no longer speaks to his family, and Shannon has cut off contact with his mother. Their "family" now includes each other, their friends and fellow church members at Agape.

Reed and Shannon's adjustment away from the volatility they knew in earlier days is typical, says one supporter of gay marriage, about committed homosexual couples. It is a signal, he says, that same-sex marriage would benefit not only individual couples but society as well.

"Marriage has forever been seen as a stabilizing influence on couples and society as a whole," says Jeff Wunrow, executive director of Privacy Rights Education Project.

It is ironic, Wunrow argues, that conservative, religious legislators in particular fail to see how marriage curbs promiscuity.

Today Reed and Shannon concentrate on making their small Jefferson City apartment into a home. Tools and trinkets line the walls of Shannon and Reed's apartment. They are reminders of happy times that both spent in rural Missouri.

"We both grew up on farms," Reed says.

Sheep shears, a coon trap and a wood plane are among the items that the men have collected from a barn in Centertown that Shannon's grandparents still own. The knick knacks lie on shelves that the men have painted a pale turquoise. Hanging from the walls are a 1942 Missouri license tag and a double-headed saw. A wagon wheel leans on the wall; a horse yoke and reaper lie in corners. Everything, made of iron, has a slightly rusty film.

In a magazine basket lie copies of Country Living, Better Homes & Gardens and Southern Living.

"Before I met Johnny, furniture, those things didn't matter to me," Shannon says. "I had functional furniture; it was set up bachelor style."

Shannon and Reed wear golden bands that they picked out together for their wedding ceremony. Regardless of the General Assembly's action this session, they will continue wearing those rings.

"We consider ourselves one," Reed says.