As a group of gay marriage supporters swelled Wednesday in front of the Presbytere in New Orleans, shouting chants for marriage equality, the bells at St. Louis Cathedral began their 6 p.m. strain. “I think I just heard the wedding bells chime,” said Joe Melcher, speaking through a megaphone to cheers in the crowd.
Despite Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Melcher and other gay rights supporters are still unable to hear wedding bells for same-sex marriages in Louisiana: The Supreme Court ruling striking down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act has no bearing on gay marriage and gay rights laws in Louisiana. The ruling nonetheless gave supporters plenty to celebrate Wednesday evening as over 100 people gathered in Jackson Square, directly in front of the building where the Louisiana Supreme Court once presided.
For those Louisianans working federal jobs — until now unable to receive some federal employment benefits covered under the Defense of Marriage Act — the victory was more than just moral. Kelly Bryson, a federal employee, attended the rally with Erika Knott, her partner of 21 years, and their two sons, 6-year-old Jeremy and 7-year-old William Knott.
Bryson said Wednesday’s ruling lifted a boulder off her and her family’s shoulders. “It provides a world of safety for our family; we’re talking life insurance, health care. If I were to die, (Erika) would have to face a whole slew of issues to take care of two kids.”
Wednesday’s ruling opens 1,138 federal employment benefits to same-sex couples living in the 12 states that have legalized gay marriage. Bryson and Knott, who are married in Canada, are now considering getting married in the United States.
Gay couples in Louisiana, however, continue to wait for legal rights afforded to heterosexual married couples. Civic leaders described Wednesday’s ruling as a “watershed moment in the fight for equality,” but continued to emphasize the headwind that LGBT rights organizations face in Louisiana.
“Louisiana still discriminates against its citizens in employment, housing accommodation, adoption — there are no protections for our LGBT students and there are no protections for our adopted LGBT children,” said SaraJean Brady, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of Forum for Equality, which organized Wednesday’s rally.
State lawmakers showed no sign Wednesday of changing stances on keeping the state’s marriage laws intact. “In Louisiana, we will opt for traditional marriage,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said Wednesday.
But many at the Jackson Square rally expressed beliefs that tides are changing in their favor. Wednesday’s ruling was the latest in a recent set of victories claimed by local LGBT groups, including an apology issued Monday by the Archdiocese of New Orleans for its failure to recognize 32 people, many of whom were gay, who died in theUpStairs Lounge fire in 1973.
Several New Orleans legislators expressed support for Wednesday’s ruling, including state Sen. J.P. Morrell, Rep. Helena Moreno and Rep. Jared Brossett all voiced support of Wednesday’s Supreme Court decisions.
Deb Guidry and Shannon Powers, a New Orleans couple of 37 years, expressed hope that the DOMA ruling will provide energy and momentum to efforts in Louisiana and other states that still do not allow same-sex marriage.
“Since Katrina, we’ve used all of our life savings to go back and help rebuild this state and this city,” Powers said. “We put everything we had into it and all we’re asking for is a little bit in return in support of us. We don’t want anything extra, just the same rights.”
A host of other civic organizations, including the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, were at the rally to support LGBT rights. Opponents of same-sex marriage, including religious groups who regularly protest gay events in New Orleans, were nowhere to be seen on Wednesday.
Former New Orleans School Board President Thomas Robichaux, Louisiana’s first openly gay elected official, has felt the headwind facing gay rights proponents firsthand. As superintendent, he fought to institute anti-bullying policies in New Orleans schools, policies that protect gay students and now are at risk of being watered down and even rendered ineffective, he said.
“I’m still fighting that fight because the School Board is considering a revision of the policy that will be a step backward for the children,” Robichaux said. He is worried that the School Board might replace the policy he helped to establish with one that does not include enumerations for LGBT students.
In Louisiana, protections for gay couples afforded by the state remain limited. Private groups, however, have been stepping in to fill the gap.
Ryan Delany recently started what he describes as Greater New Orleans’ first gay rights-focused law firm, Delaney and Robb. He said at Wednesday’s rally that gay couples can take steps to protect their rights.
“If you’re together with someone and you’ve been in a committed relationship and something tragically happens to one person, your surviving partner is nothing but a legal stranger,” Delany said. “Having a will in place will help your surviving partner, and providing your partner power of attorney can help in the event of disability or severe injury. “
As the crowd dispersed to celebrate their most recent victory, Joe Melcher shouted out a toast to the supporters donning red — the Human Rights Campaign symbol for equality — and rainbow accessories. “Tonight we celebrate, tomorrow we go back to work.”