Fresh from their wedding in San Francisco, Jason McDowell and Bill Watson requested new driver's licenses in their home state with their last names hyphenated. They were turned down. "What difference does it make to the state of Tennessee if we want to be called McDowell-Watson?" Watson said. "What skin is it off their nose?"
Now the two men intend to challenge Tennessee's ban on same-sex marriages. And they know Tennessee "is going to be a tough state," Watson said. But they say they have hope. Watson, a 36-year-old nursing home administrator, noted that it took 19 years after California allowed interracial marriages for the U.S. Supreme Court to force other states to recognize them. "It's a long battle. We know that," he said.
Watson and McDowell said they are watching to see how the California supreme court rules on challenges to more than 3,600 same-sex marriage ceremonies performed in San Francisco in the past three weeks. McDowell, a 25-year-old nursing home nurse, has custody of his sister's 5-year-old son. He said the Tennessee Department of Children's Services didn't hesitate to qualify him to be a foster parent after his sister became ill two years ago. The two, who met two years ago and were married February 23, are considering adopting the boy.
McDowell said they deserve the same rights and benefits that marriage brings in Tennessee with regard to tax filings, property ownership, inheritance, and insurance benefits. Watson said he has the larger income, and that if he dies, he wants his Social Security benefits to go to McDowell and the child. "He would have no rights to Social Security benefits if something happens to both of us," Watson said. He said they shouldn't be required to seek power of attorney arrangements.
The two are seeking an attorney to help them challenge Tennessee's version of the federal government's so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse to recognize gay marriages outside their borders. A Tennessee attorney general's opinion in 1996 said gay marriage is unconstitutional. Hedy Weinberg, Tennessee director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she was unsure if her organization might take on a request to challenge Tennessee's marriage law.
Sharon Curtis Flair, spokeswoman for Tennessee attorney general Paul Summers, said the office would "stand by our previous opinions on this subject." Pending legislation sponsored by Rep. Chris Clem, a Republican, would expand Tennessee's ban on same-sex marriages to include civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Vanderbilt University law professor Rebecca Brown said it's too soon to tell how Tennessee courts might decide on a constitutional challenge of the state's ban on same-sex marriages. "There are so many things happening all around the country right now, it is all kind of a blur," Brown said. "I think California will be first on validity of the marriages and then other states on acceptance. The issue is not shaped yet."