Two women fight for the ideal of marriage — but each defines it differently

Dee Powell, a member and an administrator at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, opposes same-sex marriage in Maryland.
Dee Powell, a member and an administrator at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, opposes same-sex marriage in Maryland. (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna)

Third of three articles on state ballot issues

Dee Powell's belief in the ideal of marriage survived the reality of her divorce, and now she is working to preserve the institution as solely the union of a man and a woman.


"Marriage is perfect," Powell says. "People are not."

But for Judy Gaver, what would make marriage perfect is to extend it to gay couples, such as the lesbians whose commitment ceremony she attended this summer.


"It was beautiful, with the flowers and the music and the families," Gaver said. "There was so much love, how could this be wrong? But of course, because it was Maryland, it had to be a commitment ceremony. It couldn't be a 'real' wedding."

The two women are on opposite sides of the referendum, Question 6, that on Election Day will ask voters whether same-sex marriage should be legal in Maryland.

Powell, 51, comes to her position in part from her faith — she is a member and an administrator at Hope Christian Church in Beltsville — but her belief originates in a place so deep she can't describe it.

"I have always seen marriage as between a man and a woman," Powell said in a recent interview in her apartment in Owings Mills. "I definitely believe my faith has something to do with it. But even before I became a Christian, that's how I saw marriage."


Gaver's fight for same-sex marriage began in a sense in 2001, when her eldest son, Andrew, who now calls himself Drew, came out as gay. Through the support group Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, she has lobbied state legislators on bills such as extending the right of hospital visitation to same-sex couples and, most recently, marriage equality for all.

"Separate but equal," Gaver, 58, said, "has never worked."

Maryland legislators, after several years of addressing the issue, approved same-sex marriage this year, and it was signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley. But opponents gathered more than 100,000 signatures on a petition, successfully putting the issue up for referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot. Voters in three other states also will consider same-sex marriage.

For many, it is a highly personal issue, tied up in one's own family and experiences.

'Fighting for the family'

Powell was born to an unmarried interracial couple — her mother is black, and her biological father, who is not a part of her life, is white. Powell said that at age 6 she became a foster child because her mother was too young to take care of her. She lived with her godparents in West Baltimore but kept in touch with her mother.

During her childhood, her mother's partners were mostly women, Powell said. She knew that was outside the norm, but didn't fault it. (Powell said her mother did not want to be interviewed for this article.)

"I love my mom. We naturally want people we love to be happy, and I felt like my mom was happy," she said. "I always felt it was different, but I was accepting of it. She wasn't in a horrible relationship. I saw my mother with different partners, I kind of accepted that as her lifestyle."

And yet, Powell said, she occasionally longed for the conventional.

"I must say, like any other normal child, I would dream: I'd wish I could be with my natural mom and my natural dad," she said. "I would think, maybe I will turn the corner, and there they would be."

At age 21, she married a fellow churchgoer, and they went on to have three sons. But the marriage ended in divorce in 2007, something that even now fills her with regret.

"It was very devastating for me. I love my family, I believe in fighting for the family," she said. "There are even times today I wish I could have fought harder."

Powell doesn't see her advocacy against same-sex marriage as a rebuke of her mother, and says that anyone who thinks, "Oh, she grew up just hating lesbians" is wrong. "I always liked my mom's friends," Powell said. "We played cards, we went out to eat."

But, by the same token, Powell said, she didn't consider them stepmothers.

Powell's eldest son, Corey Camphor, said his mother's stance hasn't created any friction at family gatherings. "Never once has she treated them any differently," Camphor, 27, said of his gay family members and their partners. "My grandma, I love her a lot. Her sexuality, I was ignorant of it at least as a child. But my mom's been very open with us, and it was never an issue."

Karen Burns, a close friend, said Powell's "very loving and accepting" personality stands in contrast to the image some have of same-sex marriage opponents as intolerant.

"She's actually living proof that it's possible to be tolerant and to stand for marriage," said Burns, whom Powell recruited to work for the group Maryland Marriage Alliance in its fight against same-sex marriage.

Powell said she wants the institution of marriage to stay the same for her three sons and her three grandchildren.

"Let's not touch that. Let's not even start going down that particular slope," she said. "Let's leave marriage to men and women. Let's call [same-sex unions] something else."

Gaver also views the fight as one for future generations — although for now, she says ruefully, neither of her two sons are in any hurry to marry or produce grandchildren.

"I'm patiently waiting," she jokes. She and her husband, Ed, also have a younger son, Joshua, 27, who is straight.

"We have dogs," Drew Gaver, 30, said dryly.

An unlikely activist

Judy Gaver, whose family has lived in Carroll County for at least seven generations, said that when her son came out, all she knew about gays was what was in the news at the time: the AIDS crisis and the beating death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in Wyoming.

"Honestly, in the beginning, it sounds so foolish now, but I didn't want anyone to know. 'What will the neighbors think?'" she said of her initial reaction. "No one wants to be judged, and you certainly don't want anyone to judge your children."

Drew Gaver was a freshman theater major at Western Maryland College, now McDaniel. During a visit to his parents' home in Westminster, he left his email account open on a computer and his mother saw messages to another man. That sped up a discussion that Drew already wanted to have with his parents.

Judy Gaver, a caseworker in the Carroll County Circuit Court community service program, turned to what was then the closest PFLAG chapter, in Howard County. There she found not just support and a community she considers family, but a cause worth fighting for as well.

"I never thought I would be the kind of person who would go down to Annapolis and talk to legislators," she said. She had never even been involved in political campaigns for local candidates or issues in Westminster. And, in her eyes, it has to be called marriage, not something else such as a civil union, if gays are truly to be treated equally under the law.

While the rest of the family supports her, Judy Gaver is the most active in the same-sex marriage battle.

"I'm not sure they're as much on the bandwagon as I am," she says of Drew and his partner, Luke Grooms, 33, an opera and musical theater singer.


"I would love for him to be a member of our family forever," she said. "I would love for him to be my son-in-law."


The couple met in Baltimore several years ago, when Grooms was touring with a production of "Phantom of the Opera." They now live in Philadelphia, where Drew Gaver works in reception and billing for a dental practice.

And indeed, Drew Gaver says, he has to remind his mother that there are reasons beyond the law, such as finances and timing, that he and Grooms may not be the first in line for a marriage license should Question 6 pass.

"We just are happy with the way things are now," he said. "We certainly want to have that as an option in the future."

For now, he says, he is grateful that his parents not just accept who he is but work for his rights — something that the families of his friends haven't always done.

Ed Gaver, 62, who works for an electrical distribution company, says the entire experience prompted him to "look at myself and my values."

Agreeing with his wife's description of him as a "Rush Limbaugh-listening Republican," he said he's since switched parties because of what he sees as the GOP's hostility to gays, such as the current party platform opposing same-sex marriage.

"I want equal rights for everyone," he said. "I think everyone should be treated the same."


Question 6

Civil Marriage Protection Act

Establishes that Maryland's civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.

Source: State Board of Elections