Local LGBT activists, couples celebrate Supreme Court ruling

Karin Valenti, left, and her partner, Deb Hammermeister, back, both of Hagar Township, hug their friend Karen Steinke of Stevensville on Friday at the OutCenter in Benton Harbor. Valenti and Hammermeister are celebrating their two-year anniversary after getting married in New York. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Karin Valenti, left, and her partner, Deb Hammermeister, back, both of Hagar Township, hug their friend Karen Steinke of Stevensville on Friday at the OutCenter in Benton Harbor. Valenti and Hammermeister are celebrating their two-year anniversary after getting married in New York. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR – Deb Hammermeister and Karin Valenti were celebrating their two-year anniversary Friday when they learned of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision on same-sex marriage.

Together, the Hagar Township couple sat inside the OutCenter’s building in downtown Benton Harbor and reflected on the time when their only option to get married was to travel to Canandaigua, New York. The couple also basked in the feeling that no other same-sex couples would have to travel outside of their own state.

“Best anniversary gift ever,” Hammermeister said. “We’re grateful to the people who paved the way for us. So many people have reached out to us with congratulations, it will be fun to reach back and respond to all the messages and phone calls.”

The Supreme Court determined the Constitution should allow same-sex couples to marry and that states across the country cannot exclusively reserve the right to heterosexual couples. The ruling was made on a 5-4 vote – less than 24 hours after its decision on the Affordable Care Act.

The OutCenter’s staff and affiliates in Benton Harbor chose to make a statement and celebrate the nationwide ruling.

In the halls, champagne was uncorked.

OutCenter Executive Director Mary Jo Schnell said she cried after learning that marriage for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people would be returning to Michigan and Berrien County.

“The freedom to marry is a precious fundamental right that belongs to all,” she said. “We expect the state and county officials to implement the Consitituion’s command here in Michigan. Same-sex couples and their families have waited long enough.”

Berrien County Clerk Sharon Tyler said three same-sex couples came to the courthouse Friday to apply for marriage licenses.

She said there are two options for applying for a marriage license – go online to fill out the affidavit or come to the office to fill out a license in person. Couples who filed Friday can pick up their license by 1 p.m., Monday.

“This is the busiest time of year for marriage licenses,” Tyler said. “Now we have marriage licenses for everyone.”

Brad Gorman, an LGBT equality advocate and Benton Harbor resident, said it was the end of a long process just to say, “all love is equal.”

Gorman thought the court’s ruling was going to be made toward the end of Friday or early Monday, so it came as a surprise when he was at home and his partner – who had been repeatedly refreshing the Supreme Court’s blog for news – read the ruling as it came out.

“Today and this weekend is a time to celebrate,” Gorman said. “Michigan has been behind on so many LGBT issues, so this is a huge boost.”

On social media, phrases like “Equality for All” and “Same Love” were trending worldwide. Twitter included a rainbow-striped heart in every tweet that included the hashtag #LoveWins.

Something Gorman was happy about was the ripple effect the ruling would have on not only same-sex couples, but their children as well. He also felt there is still a need for discussion on non-discrimination laws.

“In Michigan, we’ve still got a long way to go,” he said. “Yeah, we can get married now, but you can also put your wedding photo on your desk and still get fired for being gay. But it’s great to know that next generation will be growing up in a time when marriage equality is happening now.”

As for Hammermeister and Valenti, who stood alongside each other wearing matching red, equality shirts, June 26 means more to them now than ever before.

“We had to have two weddings, one for a spiritual wedding so our immediate friends could be there and then we had the legal wedding in New York,” Valenti said. “There are people who have been together for 20 or 30 years and now they get a chance to be married.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@thehp.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on June 27, 2015)

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