Valentine’s Day: A Supreme (Court) celebration of equality

[photos by Nerissa Sparkman]

It’s a weird time to celebrate love.

Racial and homophobic attacks are on the rise, and the stated platform of the ruling political party includes rolling back marriage equality, kicking out immigrants and a whole host of other things that screech xenophobia, isolation and bigotry. A white-nationalist movie producer, bigoted propaganda propagator is the president’s closest advisor.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

But as we try to fit into this strange new world, whether we decide to abide or fight, or even if you’re in the minority of Louisvillians who voted in the current administration, LEO would like to invite you back to a more jubilant time.

On June 26, 2015, in the landmark Supreme Court decision for the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, marriage equality became the law of the land.

That day, gay couples began to stream to the courthouse to make their marriages legal, and later that week a whole portion of Bardstown Road was shut down, and marriages were performed in the street in a public celebration.

We’d like to take some time today to tell you the stories of four couples that were married in that first week — how they met and fell in love and what their lives are like today.

The couples include two men who had just had a church wedding a month before, and were hoping that they could get legally married in their own state; a couple who had been broken up for two years and spontaneously decided to get back together and make it official; a couple who got engaged at Disney World, but vowed not to get married until it was legal in every corner of our country; and a couple who had their private, unofficial marriage years back, but made it Kentucky-official the first chance they had.

Amanda and Lauren Vinova
Amanda and Lauren Vinova

They Meet

“We met at a party. We were both there with somebody else,” said Richie Goff. Goff is a 27-year-old Louisville native. His husband, Lucas Meyer, is 32, and originally from Evansville.

As soon as Goff said the two met at a party, Meyer disagreed. “I don’t feel like we met there.” Goff responded. “We saw each other there.”

From the evidence I’ve gathered in the last few weeks, couples all do this back and forth. It’s not arguing — it’s more like communal remembering. They share their different impressions of events to form a cohesive picture.

Meyer added details to the picture: “Later, we met at another party… and then we became Facebook friends.”

Goff reached out to Meyer on Facebook: “You’re adorable, and we should go out,” said Goff. “And I said ‘You’re adorable. Here’s my phone number,’” said Meyer.

Amanda and Lauren Vinova were both teachers in an elementary school in Henry County when they met. They were also both straight. The two became friends and colleagues, and grew closer and closer.

Amanda Vinova, a 32-year-old Shelbyville native, isn’t a teacher anymore; she’s moved to administration, but she still works at the same school with Lauren Vinova, who originally moved to Louisville from her hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Now, the duo say, they fell in love immediately, but it took awhile for them to admit it to themselves.

“We both fought it,” said Amanda Vinova. “The first time we kind of… got together… it was a drunken kind of experience.” The two were supposed to go out with a group of friends, and everybody else bailed, so they ended up getting tipsy, just the two of them.

“It was fate,” said Laura Vinova, and I joked, “Sounds more like Jack Daniels.”

The two gleefully corrected me, shouting in unison, “Tequila!”

When Steven Michael Carr introduced himself, his husband — David Bannister Jr. — leaned over and asked him in a whisper, “Are you gonna use the second?”

“I have a Roman numeral two after my name,” admitted Carr. “If I’m feeling particularly sassy, I’ll use the Roman numeral.”

“We met down the street at Cafe 360… I went in at ten o’clock at night looking for dinner, and Steven was there with a guy I went on a date with,” said Bannister. The guy had not called Bannister back, and Bannister assumed that Carr and the guy were on a date.

“I sat down at their table…” said Bannister. In the interview, Bannister and Carr did this adorable thing were they finished the sentence together: “Invited himself” they said in unison.

Bannister and Carr aren’t the only couple who did the sentence-finishing bit; it’s another one of those things that couples seem to do when reliving their cherished moments. They often share the punch lines and the big reveals, relishing those moments together.

Mariah Oberhausen, 28, is a Southern Indiana native. Rachael Harless is 34, and migrated to Louisville from Cleveland in her late teens. They met at The Highlands Taproom, back when it was next to Kashmir.

Oberhausen said music brought them together. “When I walked in, Rachel was karaoke-ing ‘I’m on a Boat,’ by the Lonely Island, and I was like ‘OK, well, I’m gonna talk to her, obviously.’”

The two became friends, each harboring romantic feelings for the other that they were certain weren’t reciprocated. After two years of friendship, the truth came out. Oberhausen was at a wedding out of town: “They were doing toasts, and everybody was professing love, and I had to profess mine as well.”

Getting Serious

Carr started getting serious with Bannister fast. “It’s not like I’m saying the first week that I saw him I was like, ‘OK we’re gonna get married.’ I’m not that creepy. Maybe a little creepy, but not that creepy,” said Carr.

But within three or four months Carr and Bannister were spending every night together, and, after a year — when it was time to sign new leases and find new apartments — the two moved in together.

In fact, all the couples I spoke with got serious pretty fast.

When the Vinovas woke up from their first night together, they wondered if it was just the tequila, but Lauren Vinova said it quickly became apparent that it was more than just a drunken one-off: “We were like, let’s try this sober, and see what happens. And it was amazing.”

Oberhausen and Harless also had a strong friendship to base their relationship on, so it also went from zero to 60 pretty much immediately, which included Oberhausen moving in and helping Harless raise her two children.

Meyer has a pretty a-romatic story about Goff moving in with him. Within the first month Goff was spending every night at Meyer’s house. Goff was still a college kid, and Meyer had a whole house, which meant certain things happened only at Meyer’s house. “I was doing [his] laundry, and I was like maybe you should just move in,” said Meyer.

It’s a nice reminder that real love isn’t all flowery declarations and first kisses; there’s a lot of laundry, taxes and upkeep along the way. If you ignore the day-to-day work of love, you might be headed for trouble.

Bumps Along the Way

“So we had a rough patch there, and we broke up, for like… ” Bannister let the sentence trail off.

For three of the couples I spoke with, there was an age difference of about five years, and this caused trouble for some of them. But really, every couple together long enough will have some issues.

“There’s lots of things that say when you’re in different life stages it’s hard to maintain a relationship,” said Bannister. By the time Carr was in his senior year of college, Bannister was a working professional who owned a house.

Bannister was working more and more, and to relieve the stress of the job — he does stuff to computers for Humana — Bannister played “World of Warcraft.”

This didn’t sit well with Carr. “I’m extremely extroverted, so I need lots of attention.”

Goff said he and Meyer broke up a few times early in their relationship: “But that’s normal. Sometimes you gotta break up and reevaluate.”

Oberhuasen and Harless said it wasn’t just an age difference — it was the stress of raising a family. The couple raised Harless’ two children as a family.

“Yeah, I started parenting with Rachel at the very beginning of my 20s, and I started to feel like I was missing my 20s a bit. And I struggled with that, and we just had to let it work itself out,” said Oberhausen. Their big break up lasted two whole years.

The difficulties the Vinovas faced were from without, not within.

Both come from strict religious backgrounds. Amanda Vinova was raised by her mom, with a mostly-absentee father. Her mom struggled to accept her daughter, but came around. Lauren Vinova’s parents are still struggling.

“I wrote my mom a letter explaining about us,” said Lauren Vinova. “It did not go well. She wrote me back. It was very hateful, very homophobic.”

Despite bumps along the way, the couples got past their issues, and came out stronger.

Carr and Bannister spent only three days apart when they broke up.

“I told him he needed to figure out what he wants,” said Bannister. Then, he did this thing when he stopped addressing me, the interviewer, and started talking directly to Carr. “And you left for three days, and came back and were like, ‘I’m good. This is what I want.’”

The couples all did this at some point, talking to each other instead of me. And it reveals another aspect of the shared histories between couples. They don’t just have these stories to tell other people.

They tell the story of their love to each other, back and forth. Their history is simultaneously a creation myth, a holy oration and a new ongoing profession of love.

Steven Michael Carr and David Bannister Jr.
Steven Michael Carr and David Bannister Jr.

Popping the Question

“It was around the four-year mark [of dating], and we decided to bring it up with our church… because we’d been there a long time, and knew how it worked,” said Carr.

The couple had started attending Highland Baptist Church together early in their relationship. And while they had discovered that the church was incredibly gay-friendly, it had always sidestepped the question of whether they’d outright marry their LBGTQ congregants.

The church decided they could get married there, but it took almost three years to make the decision. In that time, Carr and Bannister got engaged in Washington, D.C. It happened the week that the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned.

Bannister got down on one knee by the Reflecting Pool of the Washington Monument. He got flustered in the moment and put the ring on Carr’s right hand instead of his left. But Carr said “yes,” anyway.

“Right after it happened, we were just walking down by the Reflecting Pool, and this woman and her family, her entire family including her children, came up,” recalled Carr.

Their open display of affection, which included the exchange of rings, was uncharacteristic for the couple. “We call  PDA “public displays of anxiety,” said Bannister, adding the couple still routinely gets verbally harassed in Louisville.

Carr continued the story. “The woman came close, and I’m like, ‘Oh shit, here we go. Here it comes.’”

But instead of hate speech, the woman — and her whole family — congratulated Carr and Bannister. “The fact that they were like complete strangers, and were very happy for us. It really got me. Hit me in all the feels,” said Carr.

Meyer and Goff were traveling as well when the question came up. “We went to Disney World, and Richie gave me this ring as a surprise. I had no idea, all my friends knew,” said Meyer.

The couple was ready to start their life together, but this was before DOMA had been struck down, and legal marriage in Kentucky seemed like it was a long way off. So they decided to wait.

The Vinovas didn’t want to wait and decided to get married when they still lived in Henry County. They hadn’t come out at work, and they decided they needed to do so. “We came out at a faculty meeting — when we got engaged — and it was like, one person started clapping because they were excited, and then they were like ‘uhhhh… ’ because no one else was clapping,” said Amanda Vinova. After that solo excited teacher stopped clapping, there was dead silence.

For Harless and Oberhausen, the decision to get married, and to get back together, came simultaneously. “The new Highlands Taproom was like, ‘Hey… we’re gonna have this party, and we’re gonna have ordained ministers there,’” said Harless. “And I was like ‘Hey, what if we got married? It’s a sign. We met at Taproom.’”

Oberhausen said it was sudden, but also not sudden: “We had known we were each other’s person for such a long time.”

The Big Day

Harless and Oberhausen learned there is a lot to do, even for a last minute wedding. Oberhausen was working at a music festival, and had to do all her last minute shopping there.

But other couples did a lot more planning.

“We rented a barn on this property out in Shelby County,” said Amber Vinova. They both had dresses and bridesmaids. They wrote their own vows.

Lauren Vinova’s parents didn’t come, but the couple was surrounded by family and loved ones.

At the time when gay couples couldn’t get married in Kentucky, they had to go out of state to somewhere like New York, or New Hampshire. After that out of state wedding, Kentucky would begrudgingly offer couples the protections of marriage. The Vinova’s were legally married at Niagara Falls, but when Obergefell v. Hodges happened, the couple knew they wanted to get married, again, in Kentucky.

“It was important to us. We were finally seen as equal, just like everybody else, and it was our way of being in support of other marriages, and just being like, ‘hell yeah,’” said Amber Vinova. Lauren Vinova added “It was like a given. Why wouldn’t we go and get married? Our love is stronger now than it was three years ago.”

The two had another reason to want to be married as soon as possible: They were in the process of trying to have children, and Lauren Vinova was going to carry the child. Newly-legalized gay marriage meant the couple could avoid the process of having Amanda Vinova adopt their child if they managed to conceive.

For Lucas and Meyer, the decision to get married had been made when they got engaged — it had just been put on hold.

Meyer was cutting hair at Focus Salon, just a few blocks away from where Bardstown Road was shutting down for all those marriages. “I was at work… and I texted Richie, and said ‘I think we should get married today.’”

“And all my friends from work were there, and all our friends showed up. We just sent out a text messages like, ‘Hey, see us get married. And people were like running to make sure they made it,’” said Meyer.

Harless said that in addition to being the inspiration for their nuptials, The Highland Taproom street fair solved a big logistics problem. “I definitely never wanted a wedding, but being married in a wedding was important to Mariah. This was like our compromise.” They didn’t have to plan anything or invite anybody.

Goff said he loved the way it happened. “I’m so glad we did it. It’s really memorable, people are still asking us about it.”

When my editor gave me this assignment, I started trying to find people who got married that first day, or that first week. I started looking around and found my sources without asking exactly when or how they got married. But as I did the interviews, I realized all four couples had been on Bardstown Road that day. Which is actually pretty cool, because I was there too. So I was at all four of these weddings, even though I didn’t know three of the four couples, at the time.

Carr and Bannister, who had just been married in a church the month before, were on Bardstown Road only to get the legal bits taken care of. The couple got their paperwork, were sealed in legal marriage and then went to Chipotlé. Carr called it “perfect.”

For Carr, the big emotional moments came when they got married in church.

After three years of hemming and hawing, Highland Baptist made a decision by not making a decision. “After twirling and twirling, they were like, ‘Technically there’s nothing in the by-laws that says we can’t do it, so there’s no reason to have this discussion, so let’s just do it,’” said Carr.

He said that the whole marriage discussion had started in an unromantic way — that after attending something like 30 weddings together, it seemed like it was just a logical step for him and Bannister. But Carr was deeply moved by the ceremony.

“I know I had heard this countless times when we had gone to weddings, but this whole idea of the wedding isn’t just a covenant you make with this other person: It’s a covenant you make with everyone in the room,” said Carr. “And I never really got that, until I was up on that altar. And how… how sacred that was.”

The Uncertain Future

In Louisville, in the summer of 2015, it felt like we all were standing in some church or some barn in Shelby County, or some section of Bardstown Road, and we all promised to stand by and safeguard all of the new marriages that were suddenly, beautifully legal.

It’s a promise that’s gotten more difficult since Nov. 8.

The couples I spoke with all had plenty to say about the current administration and their concerns for the future.

For the Vinovas, their concerns center on the family they are starting. The Vinovas are having triplets.

“It’s terrifying,” said Amanda Vinova.  Their fears are both immediate and existential. “We did a … birth certificate, and I was really excited because both our names are gonna be on it, and we didn’t have to cross out ‘father’ to put Amanda’s name, and I’m afraid it’s gonna… I mean who knows what,” said Lauren Vinova. She added, “I didn’t now there was so much hidden hatred in the world. I guess I was naive.”

Carr is more concerned with other peoples’ safety: “A lot of my fears with this administration are less about marriage equality and LGBT rights; honestly, I’m more concerned with our black brothers and sisters’ rights, and the rights and the safety of Muslim-Americans, and immigrants and refugees, and people with disabilities.”

Meyer and Goff echoed Carr’s sentiments. Goff also talked about staying politically active, while trying to find some personal balance and happiness. “You have to do all you can, but at the same time you have to give yourself a little distance, or you’ll just kill yourself.”

Oberhausen sees the current administration as a cultural backsliding. She’s worried about it but is also focused on the future. “This backslide could be huge, and it can change everything. Or we can change everything.”

Celebrate Valentine’s Day

To end on a happier note: Here are the Valentine’s Day plans for the four happily-married couples.

Meyer and Goff are keeping it simple and having a nice dinner… probably.

“We’re going to Jack Fry’s. Well, we have reservations to Jack Fry’s. We keep going back and forth on whether we’ll actually go. I’d say we need to do something for Valentine’s Day, even something small,” said Meyer.

The Vinovas are going to Volaré, Lauren Vinova won’t be drinking, of course, and this is probably the last Valentine’s Day the couple will have to themselves for a while.

Carr and Bannister are eating too. “We are planning on going to the annual Valentine’s Day dinner at Skyline Chili,” said Carr. “David is from Cincinnati, and when you come out of the womb, they hand you a Coney there.”

Harless texted me their plans. “On the actual day, we are seeing ‘50 Shades Darker’ because we are terrible, terrible people.”

The weekend before the actual day, Oberhausen has a list of plans but is keeping them secret.

Love Every day

The future is uncertain. This is always true.

The other thing that is always true: You should love as much as you can for a long as you can. Whether it’s your spouse, your partner, your friends or your own sweet self, give love and spread love.

I’ve personally always thought the history of Valentine’s Day was pretty dicey, and a little creepy. But I’ve always celebrated it anyway.

Because we should dedicate as many days to love as possible.

Happy Valentine’s Day.