The walls did not fall in on the little house on Hamburg Street in South Baltimore when the U.S. Senate voted 85-14 earlier this month to deny federal recognition of same-sex marriages, discouraging acceptance of such unions by the states.
Nor did the two women who live in the house collapse, though this issue has been the pivot of their lives for nearly six years. They were disappointed, but saw it coming. Their reactions could be defined in a word: contempt.
The Defense of Marriage Act, as the federal legislation expected to be signed into law by President Clinton is called, "is a product of election-year politics," said Ninia Baehr.
It is a slap at people like them, a repudiation of the way they live. But they have been repudiated before.
"It doesn't affect anybody because there is no place [for same-sex people] to get married anyway in this country," says Baehr, which is true. "It doesn't affect our case in Hawaii."
Baehr and her domestic partner, Genora Dancel, are suing their home state. They accuse it of discriminating against them by refusing to issue them a marriage license. The state, they say, is violating its own law against sexual discrimination.
Back in 1990, the two women were just starting their lives together; they had known each other only six months. They had no plans to get married, much less take the state to court. But then Baehr got sick with an ear infection. Dancel, unable to have her cared for under her medical plan, began to see a certain injustice in the way the law regarded them.
When local gay activists urged them to try to make their union legal, they decided to join the cause. They applied for a marriage license in December 1990, and the rest is history, still in the making.
After they went to court, Dancel and Baehr were thrust into a sustained period of hectic public activism for the cause of same-sex marriage. Briefly they drew the nation's attention toward Hawaii. They attended rallies, raised funds, went on radio and television, gave interviews. They lived their lives publicly. It was a terrible strain on the new relationship, and before long it began to tell.
After about three years, Baehr and Dancel found themselves harried, worn out and frequently fighting with each other. And though the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled favorably for them -- declaring a state ban on gay marriages discriminatory -- more legal warfare lay ahead.
So far, according to Baehr, the two women have spent about $50,000 in legal fees. They owe their lawyer, Daniel Foley, about $30,000 more. Most of the court costs for their legal battle have been picked up by the Lambda Legal Defense Fund -- a gay advocacy group.
In July 1993, Baehr and Dancel fled Hawaii and sought asylum in Baltimore, where they could devote time to strengthening their private relationship. They picked Baltimore because of Dancel's ambitions to finish her university education and to study medicine. Johns Hopkins was the lure.
Dancel got a job as a television engineer at the University of Maryland. Baehr writes grants for a small housing charity in South Baltimore.
Baltimore was just what they needed. "We have a life here," said Baehr, a thin, elegant woman whose straight, light hair frames her face. She is making tea in the rehabilitated house she shares with Dancel, three flea-sized dogs and a 14-pound cat named Mr. Right.
"For a long time we wanted our privacy, so much so we didn't get involved with any local gay groups," she continued. They went out a few times, to gay bars and clubs in the Mount Vernon area, even lived there a while before buying a shell of a house in South Baltimore.
Their aim was to recuperate, to get to know each other better.
"Our home life this year and last year has been serene," said Baehr. "Our marriage has improved every year."
Baehr is imprecise on this. Now and then she will use the word to describe what is more literally a cohabitation. She wears two relevant rings: an engagement ring on the proper finger, and another gold ring on her right hand. This she intends to move to her ring finger when the two finally win their case -- which both are almost sure they will -- and are able to marry.
They could have a Quaker ceremony (Baehr is the daughter of Quaker missionaries), she says, or a secular commitment rite. But both want the sanction of the state.
According to Dancel, during litigation the state of Hawaii offered the couple a domestic partnership arrangement. It would have granted them many of the benefits married couples enjoy. "But that's not enough now," she says.
They want all the legal and financial advantages of the married state: the right of a spouse to decline to testify against her mate; medical insurance in the workplace that covers them as a couple; the authority of one spouse to make decisions on medical care for her disabled mate; the right to adopt children, the right to be considered next of kin, to inherit her partner's property.
"In the eyes of the law Ninia is a stranger to me," says Dancel, "and vice versa."
She is a less formal woman than Baehr, a little tomboyish, with her black hair loosely tied and spilling down her back. She is spirited, smiles a lot and punctuates her conversation with small explosions of laughter.
Both women reject arguments that gay marriages should be prohibited because they cannot produce children. There are lots of childless couples, they say. Should their marriages be annuled? Should couples beyond childbearing age be prohibited from marrying? Baehr wants a family. She thinks adoption is a promising option.
Both are convinced they are in the vanguard of dramatic social change. "This is an amazing movement in history," says Baehr. She compares the taboo on same-sex marriage to the prohibition in certain states against interracial unions three decades ago, a ban ruled unconstitutional in 1967.
It was because they are convinced that they have a responsibility that extends beyond themselves that they did not remain quiescent in Baltimore for very long.
Back in spotlight
Though they had avoided politicking on behalf of same-sex marriage or lesbian interests for about a year, they eventually decided to "come out" again. They attended rallies and fund-raisers in Boston, Philadelphia, New York. They were on "Oprah." They gave newspaper interviews.
There were other reasons for this decision. Dancel was animated by the rejection of a domestic partners bill by the Baltimore City Council in 1994. Since then, similar legislation has been or will be considered by a score of state legislatures around the country, including Maryland. New York, Seattle and San Francisco have approved domestic partnership arrangements. The issue is warming up.
"We realized that we were needed," said Baehr. "We were needed to help people tell the truth about their lives."
Their public re-emergence also had a practical impulse. "We had to pay our lawyer," said Dancel. "Dan Foley has really worked hard, and he's going to be our best man."
Neither woman expects to remain a lesbian activist after their case is resolved. "Our intentions are -- whether we win or not -- we're going to step aside," says Dancel. "We're going to say, 'Now it's up to you,' " referring to other same-sex couples determined to marry.
"We've made a decision that this is not going to interfere with our future."
Which is what it has been all about, from the beginning.
Pub Date: 9/22/96