Not every couple celebrates their first and 25th anniversaries in the same year. Then again, not every couple has navigated a roller coaster quite like the one Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorheis have – that of legal recognition of same gender relationships both as activists and a committed couple.
After a short courtship, the couple held their first nuptials in the form of a commitment ceremony in 1979. “We knew it wasn’t something that was done but it was something that was important to us,” says Robert. “Our gay friends couldn’t wrap their heads around two men having a ceremony. People in the (LGBT) community were having trouble with it.”
Friends and family also had various reactions. No one from Robert’s family attended their commitment ceremony although, he says, “Michael was accepted as a member of the family.” While Michael’s mother was open to attending, the two had kept the ceremony a secret from Michael’s father. They knew of no way for the mother to be away for so long without arousing suspicion. Michael points out, however, that some of his cousins attended, and one of his maternal aunts gave them a gift. “She accepted the ceremony as a wedding and gave us the same gift she had given to all of her nieces and nephews at their weddings,” he says.
Robert and Michael took another interim step in 2002, becoming the second couple in Westchester County (in New York State) to register as domestic partners. “Domestic partnership was a non-entity,” says Robert, “though we were thrilled it was happening. This was the first step to full marriage equality.” Never-the-less, the couple did not treat their domestic partnership as anything other than a legality and held no ceremony to mark the occasion.
Dealing with the palpable discomfort among friends within the LGBT community after their 1979 commitment ceremony would prove to be a valuable experience. The couple encountered substantial resistance among established LGBT organizations during their early participation in the movement for marriage equality.
Michael remembers the push back in the early years of campaigning for marriage equality. “All of the major organizations were against us. The first inkling that we were getting somewhere was when Massachusetts got it, or maybe when Canada approved marriage. I think that, to us, was one of the turning points,” he says, both for them and the established LGBT organizations.
“I happened to be on a business trip, that Robert had joined me on, and Robert had just gone back home,” says Michael, reflecting back on the day when Canada joined the ranks of marriage equality countries. “I remained in Canada. I called him back and asked if he wanted to get married.”
Then, in 2003, 24 years after their commitment ceremony, Michael and Robert legally married each other in Niagara Falls, Canada, in front of approximately 50 guests. This time, rather than issues pertaining to cultural acceptance, it was geographical distance that kept the event from being even larger. “My cousin who, we thought, would never accept the invitation was the first to accept,” notes Michael. “My mom gave us away.”
Their wedding in Canada added impetus to their quest for full equality at home. The couple, represented by Lambda Legal, intervened on behalf of the Westchester County Executive, who was sued by an outside party for recognizing out-of-state marriages like theirs. The case, Godfrey vs. Spano, would go to New York’s highest court and set the precedent for statewide legal recognition of gay couples married in other jurisdictions.
In addition to their early involvement as litigants, Michael and Robert were among the original founders of Marriage Equality New York, which later would merge with Marriage Equality USA. “I think we were one of only two couples among the early participants, the other being Cathy Marino Thomas and her wife, Sheila,” says Robert. “The rest were all single. There were 10 in the core group.” Although the two have partaken in more than their fair share of rallies, their emphasis has always been on education and engagement. “Education is the key — you have to make people aware of the issues,” says Robert.
Once married, the two quickly realized their work as activists and educators was far from finished. Upon returning from their wedding, the priest at their local Catholic parish ejected them from the choir. “Making people realize you cannot separate the church from this issue,” says Robert, was one of key elements the two considered critical. “LGBT groups backed away from us, characterizing it as a religious issue. But it is not just a religious issue, it is a civil rights issue. LGBT groups experienced in lobbying told us at MENY that we could not ask our legislators what their position was on marriage for same sex couples. It was too controversial.”
In spite of opposition from all sides, Robert says that, from the beginning, “We knew we were going to ask about one question — marriage. MENY sent out a statewide questionnaire. Most legislators ignored them. Of those who returned them, there were certainly more ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’s.’” Picking up where his husband left off, Michael adds that, “within a year after Canada, they (LGBT organizations) were starting to embrace the idea. MENY coined the term ‘marriage equality.’”
The couple also lays claim to another milestone in the marriage equality movement, having been instrumental in making the connections to get Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer to Canada for their wedding. Windsor vs. U.S. would become the landmark decision requiring the federal government to recognize marriages performed in marriage equality states. The opinion cited Godfrey vs. Spano, in which Robert and Michael had been lead participants to prove their marriage was recognized in New York State.
Since Windsor, when same gender couples could finally receive all of the rights, responsibilities and privileges of marriage afforded by federal law, the couple has contemplated the reality of true marriage equality. Discussing the reality of a potentially larger federal income tax liability because of the marriage penalty, Michael notes, “That is one of the responsibilities of marriage, to pay that marriage penalty. I was happy to pay those taxes because I am now an equal citizen. It comes with the whole enchilada. You want to be treated equally, that’s part of the whole enchilada. That’s what comes with the rights and responsibilities of marriage. You can’t just take the pluses and eliminate the minuses. But you now also have the rights that we have been denied for so long.”
With equal marriage rights having been secured in New York and much of the country, Robert will be stepping down from the MEUSA board. “Each of us owes a huge debt of gratitude to Robert and Michael for their work and personal sacrifice in making both MEUSA and the entire marriage equality movement a success,” says MEUSA Executive Director Brian Silva. “Their successful lawsuit early in our struggle was critical in bringing recognition for LGBTQ New York families. And Robert’s leadership on our Board as we have merged, transitioned and grown in these past few years will be sorely missed.”