When marriage becomes political. William Lucas Walker’s Spilled Milk column.
Most people — unless their last name is Clinton — don’t think about marriage politically.
Most people experience marriage as a daily series of mundane assurances: there will probably be no sex tonight; siblings fight dirty; if you land in the hospital at least one person has to show up; if you land in jail that same person will bail you out; this hospital/jail person will never learn to properly load a dishwasher; their grooming habits will always strike you as bizarre; dripping faucets are always your fault; there will never be enough money for college; your toddlers are spreading peanut butter on your rug. Right now.
Being happily married means you love all this. It also means you’re probably too exhausted to think about marriage, especially in political terms.
Unless you’re Nikki Haley, up for re-election next week as governor of South Carolina. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
All this is on my mind because I’m flying to South Carolina this weekend for my high school reunion. My class no longer remotely qualifies as middle-aged, unless the surgeon general raises the average life expectancy to 116. The guided-missile hormones that rocketed us through puberty are gone, girl. Our cheerleaders are fully menopaused; the testosterone that once powered us to a state football championship now administered through injection, patch and topical gel.
We’ve become a reality show no one wants to watch.
It’s been 20 years since our last reunion, which means it’s taken a lot of effort to locate everyone and pull the whole thing together. But we decided it might be worth the effort once we started reconnecting on Facebook and realized that a lot of us are officially no longer alive. That it might be a good idea to check in before we all check out.
Luckily for me, a reunion date was chosen that coincided with my annual solo trip home. For five years now, Kelly and the kids have stayed behind in California while I hang up my husband/dad hat for a few days and focus on being a son again. I help out with household chores too strenuous for my folks, Dad and I watch Bonfire of The Vanities, a bad movie rendered excellent because it makes him laugh so much, the three of us drive into the mountains to see the fall colors and buy jelly, have cocktail hour every day at six and laugh a lot. And just as she did when I was a child, on October 29 my mother walks in with a blazing, homemade caramel cake to celebrate my birthday.
This rare time alone together was Kelly’s idea. He sensed what it would mean to us all and said, “Go.” Going has allowed my parents and me to know each other more quietly and more deeply than we’d ever be able to during our hectic, overstuffed family trips back East at Christmas and spring break. To thank for this I have my wonderful, kind and selfless husband.
Well, he’s my husband in California. Not in South Carolina.
I love South Carolina. Loved growing up there. Love going back. Despite the fact that we’re two guys with kids, in 15 years we’ve never had a bad experience. Our family is welcomed at Sunday services by the same congregation that’s known me since I was child. Our kids have been cared for in the same nursery where I used to play. On my October trips, when Kelly and the kids aren’t with me, the minister always asks to see pictures. That’s the South Carolina I love.
But it doesn’t mean we’re safe. Not as a family. Not in case of emergency. Every time we go back together we can’t avoid the unspoken stress of wondering what might happen to us if there were some sort of accident or medical crisis. Would Kelly be recognized as my spouse? Would I be recognized as his? Would we be seen as our children’s parents? Allowed to make medical decisions for each other or for them?
It’s not a hypothetical fear.
In 2011, South Carolina State Trooper Katie Bradacs and Tracie Goodwin, a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran, both residents of Lexington, SC, were already raising Bradacs’ 10-year-old son Jordan together when they made the choice to expand their family. Using in vitro fertilization, with embryos created from Katie’s eggs, Tracie became pregnant. On a family vacation to Washington, D.C., the couple were legally married. They returned to South Carolina and soon after welcomed twins, son Baylie and daughter Colbie.
Within three hours of his birth, Baylie showed signs of severe distress and was rushed to a nearby hospital better equipped to treat him. Tracie, fresh from a C-section, stayed behind with their newborn daughter while Katie accompanied Baylie to the other hospital in an ambulance. Upon arrival, the hospital staff admitted Colbie. Then informed Katie that she had no parental rights. Under South Carolina law, she was told they could recognize neither her marriage nor her status as the biological mother of her newborn son. The hospital staff was legally prohibited from recognizing any connection between Katie and her child, to release any medical information or diagnosis to her, to allow her any medical decision-making rights. Her out-of-state marriage carried no rights or protections in South Carolina. Rights and protections that would have been granted without question had Katie been Tracie’s husband.
Under South Carolina law, Katie was a legal stranger to her own son. Only Tracie, as birth mother, would be allowed access to Baylie’s doctors, medical records or given any decision-making power.
It turned out that Baylie had suffered a stroke, with significant brain impairment. Information the hospital would not disclose to Katie until Tracie, still groggy from surgery, was cogent enough to call from her hospital bed. It wasn’t until Tracie got herself released against her doctors’ wishes that she was able to join Katie at their son’s bedside, learn the full extent of their Baylie’s condition, and begin making medical decisions for his care.
In the aftermath of their ordeal, Tracie and Katie made the decision any couple might who’d suffered such treatment at a time of crisis: they sued the state. Not only to recognize their family, but to have South Carolina’s ban ruled unconstitutional so no other family would ever have to experience what they did.
Which brings us back to Nikki Haley.
As it turns out, Tracie and Katie are the very couple the Republican governor and SC attorney general Alex Wilson have vowed to continue fighting in federal court. Both are up for re-election next week, and they’ve promised voters they’ll exhaust every legal avenue in their efforts to guarantee that couples like Tracie and Katie continue to have no legal rights or protections. In case of emergency, Haley and Wilson want South Carolina’s gay taxpayers to know that — even if they slip out of state to get married — they can count on exactly the same sort of treatment Tracie, Katie and their newborns received back in 2012.
The only problem with all this is, Haley and Wilson lost their battle weeks ago. Why haven’t they figured that out? Could it be… politics?
On October 6 the Supreme Court, by refusing to hear five same-sex marriage cases from around the U.S., allowed those lower court rulings to stand. This decision immediately rendered same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional in 12 states. Including South Carolina.
South Carolina’s fate was sealed by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, when its judge ruled that Virginia’s marriage ban violated U.S. equal protection laws. Fourth Circuit Court rulings upheld by the Supreme Court apply to South Carolina cases. LikeBradacs v. Haley.
West Virginia and North Carolina, whose marriage bans were also rendered unlawful by the 4th Circuit ruling, accepted their decision and quickly called a halt to the same-sex marriage litigation advancing in their courts. Why pursue a lost cause at taxpayer expense?
Unless you’re Nikki Haley. She fights on.
When a Charleston, SC probate judge — citing the October 6 high court decision — began issuing marriage license applications, South Carolina said not so fast. Ignoring the 4th Circuit ruling, Haley called in the state’s Supreme Court they declared that no licenses could be issued to LGBT citizens until a ruling is issued in Bradacs v. Haley.
Even though 4th Circuit ruling means Haley now no chance of winning her case, it is, after all, election season. She promised SC voters to defend the state’s marriage ban until every appeal is exhausted. How would it look if she dropped the case and stopped defending the marriage ban just because it’s unconstitutional?
When I spoke with Tracie Goodwin-Bradacs last week, I could hear the fatigue in her voice. She told me that after the Supreme Court decision, she and Katie believed their family’s battle for marriage equality had come to an end. That their marriage would be recognized and they could get on with their lives. They were surprised to learn that Haley was exercising her right to run out the legal clock, even though her team had lost.
It’s hard not to be reminded Governor George Wallace. In 1962, he gained national fame for publicly defying a federal ruling ordering Alabama to desegregate its schools. As America watched, Wallace made a show of standing defiantly in the doorway of the University of Alabama, to keep two black students from enrolling. They enrolled anyway. Federal law mandated it. Wallace was forced to concede defeat. But not before hundreds of newsreel cameras caught his stunt on film, endearing him forever to Alabama’s segregationist voters, who never forgot, re-electing him for years to come.
Marriage equality is coming to South Carolina. Very soon. It’s all over but the paperwork.
Haley knows she’s lost. She also knows that in a state where 80 percent of voters passed a constitutional amendment to keep marriage from the queers, she’s winning the only game that matters to a politician. In prolonging the Goodwin-Bradacs family’s ordeal by dragging them through the court system until the bitter end, she’s sending a clear message to voters: when it comes to equality, I’ll bar the door for as long as possible.
Or at least until Election Day.
Our daughter is following all this very closely. At 13, it’s troubling to fly out of California with married parents, only to land in South Carolina a bastard.
“Will you be married by your high school reunion this weekend?” she asked yesterday.
Doubtful, but possible. Judge Michelle Childs could rule in federal court as early as today. Hopefully she’ll choose to get this business off her desk quickly so she can move on to more important things. Like Halloween. She’s got to be peeved that the case Haley continues to press is busy-work. That however she rules won’t matter. The Supreme Court decision trumps it. The dog has danced. I’d be peeved. Not inclined to smile the next time a “Re-Elect Governor Haley” ad flashed across my TV screen.
But I’m not Tracie Goodwin-Bradacs. If I were her I’m sure I wouldn’t be smiling a lot these days. I’d be pissed and stressed having to wait this thing out. It’s a measure of their character that Tracie and Katie are somehow finding the humor in it all.
Despite all their family has been through, last week Tracie laughed when she told me that even if their marriage were recognized tomorrow, there’s no getting away from Nikki Haley. Both she and Katie work for state agencies, where every day they have to pass a framed portrait of the governor in the hallway.
I couldn’t help wondering what passes through their minds.
Or if they just say, “Boo!”
Originally published on Huffington Post, as part of William Lucas Walker’s regular Spilled Milk Column