A Personal View of Same-Sex Marriage

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently declared the state's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. Two of the plaintiffs in that case, Alicia Heath-Toby and Saundra Toby-Heath, describe what marriage means to them.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Voters in states across America are deciding whether or not same-sex couples should get the right to marry. Seven states recently passed bans on gay marriage. Only Arizona voted a proposed ban down.

The issue isn't just at the ballot box. It's in the courts, too. Just days before the election, New Jersey Supreme Court ordered that the state legislature allow same-sex marriage or find another way to give couples the benefits of marriage.

Among the plaintiffs, Alicia Heath-Toby and her partner, Saundra Toby-Heath. Alicia and Saundra are both African-American and middle-aged. They've been together almost 18 years and insist their relationship is no different or less committed than any marriage.

Alicia and Saundra recently joined us to describe their life together in their own words. Alicia began their story at a long-ago dinner, where she had something on her mind.

Ms. ALICIA HEATH-TOBY: I said to myself, this might be a good time to tell this woman that I think I'm loving her. So I looked at her and I said, I got something to tell you. And I say, I think I'm in love with you.

And she looked at me as though I had three heads. She was blank, no expression - and I thought to myself, okay, she is not feeling that. And so I - you know, we keep eating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEATH-TOBY: Now I'm like, oh, God - I just put my foot in my mouth. But she didn't run. And she and I continued to have a friendship.

Ms. SAUNDRA TOBY-HEATH: I'm a slow burn kind of person. So I, you know, I knew it was coming. You know, I knew it was there. It just had - you know, we just had to grow. It was just a feeling that my life would not be very happy with her not in it.

Ms. HEATH-TOBY: She is my first lady in every kind of way. There are times when she is God to me. And that - somebody would say, well, what? But she is the closest to God that I can reach out and touch and talk to about my innermost feelings, about my challenges, about my struggles. And she will not judge me. She's merciful and she's kind. And I - she is just the bestest.

Ms. TOBY-HEATH: Alicia was having a surgery - serious surgery. So I told my manager I need a couple of weeks off, family leave, to help my wife with her recovery. My manager said okay, you can get the two weeks off without pay, but it's not family leave.

That was very unsettling for me, because just say Alicia hadn't healed properly or, you know, as swiftly as she was supposed to or whatever, and that maybe I needed some additional time off, you know. Could my job have been in jeopardy? Could I have possibly lost my position?

I mean, I don't know. But just the uncertainty of that like really rocked me and made me feel like I was very vulnerable, you know, that we were very vulnerable as a couple.

So it was at that time we'd heard about the lawsuit. The Supreme Court, they agree unanimously that we - that our rights had been violated, and that we are entitled to equal protection under the law. And for me, equal means equal language, too. It, you know, it's just...

Ms. HEATH-TOBY: Equal is, equal is not equal with but. The word but creates difference.

Ms. TOBY-HEATH: Yeah.

Ms. HEATH-TOBY: It's a lie. Equal is equal - period, dot. And marriage - you don't explain marriage.

Ms. TOBY-HEATH: Yes.

Ms. HEATH-TOBY: Civil union, what is that? That is - first of all, it's silly. It sounds silly. It's awkward, and having to explain your marriage, your relationship - it takes something away from equal status.

Ms. TOBY-HEATH: I had a co-worker, who had said to someone else - she didn't dare say it to me - that allowing us to marry would destroy the moral fabric of marriage. And I was pretty upset because this particular person had been around me and Alicia. I mean, being in our presence, couldn't you see? Couldn't you see that we're doing the same thing you and your husband was doing? Paying the mortgage, mowing the lawn, doing repairs on the house, taking vacation. I mean, we're doing the exact same thing that you were doing.

Ms. HEATH-TOBY: We're going to win this. And there's still going to be people who when we say married, they're going to look at us like we have three eyes. But we walk away knowing it means something, that when we say that word, that they have to acknowledge that. They may have some feeling about it, but they have to acknowledge it.

Ms. TOBY-HEATH: It would just make me feel like, thank you, God. Thank you for opening the hearts and minds of the people who was able to look at us as part of the human race, not an abomination.

Ms. HEATH-TOBY: Not strange.

Ms. TOBY-HEATH: Not strange...

Ms. HEATH-TOBY: Not different.

Ms. TOBY-HEATH: ...the freak of nature. You know, human beings. I would just be very happy. I would.

Ms. HEATH-TOBY: It would be like hitting the lotto, right?

Ms. TOBY-HEATH: Yeah. It would be like hitting the lotto.

Ms. HEATH-TOBY: It would be. It'd be like hitting the lotto.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Again, that was Alicia Heath-Toby and Saundra Toby-Heath in their own words.

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