WEST ORANGE, NJ - The Sept. 27 ruling allowing for marriage by same-sex couples was the latest in a series of legal developments moving states closer to recognizing same-sex unions and putting them on equal legal footing with heterosexual unions.
Yesterday’s decision by Judge Mary Jacobsen of the State Superior Court in Mercer County in Trenton, stated, “The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts. Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey Constitution." The response statewide was swift, generating a celebration by activists and a vow from Governor Christie to appeal the decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Christie has opposed same-sex marriage, saying the decision to allow it should come from voters and legislators, not judges.
But beneath all the advocacy, politics, religion, and history behind the gay rights movement, its supporters, and its detractors, same-sex couples are quietly living out their lives like everyone else. They share the same hopes, dreams, laughter, and tears as every other couple that has chosen to commit their lives to one another. Enter Aileen Hayes and Steph Mazzarella, two West Orange residents who celebrated yesterday’s decision, but view themselves as simply two people that happened to fall in love.
Aileen, 28, is a Program Coordinator for Alternatives to Domestic Violence in Hudson County. She also engages in anti-bullying advocacy work. Steph, 32, is Program Coordinator for Student Activities at Drew University in Madison. Steph, born and raised in South Orange, moved to West Orange five years ago, and Aileen, originally from Cranford, moved into town two years ago. They met two and a half years ago on an online dating site called “OkCupid.” After connecting through a mutual love for Bette Midler’s 1993 cult family classic movie “Hocus Pocus,” the two met within a month and a relationship ensued.
Steph knew from her early teens that she was gay, and there was no question in her mind. She told her brother first, and in her senior year of college, "came out" to her parents, who were not surprised and have supported her since then. Things were different for Aileen, who did date boys – and girls, once she got to college. She came to the realization that she was gay in college, and told her parents when she was in graduate school. “My mom almost passed out,” said Aileen. “It took her awhile to adjust, but she is very supportive now.” Aileen’s younger sister and her father, along with her and Steph’s extended families, have accepted and support the couple’s relationship.
Aileen also struggled with her faith. Raised an Irish Catholic, she has a strong relationship with God and a strong faith. “I just couldn’t believe that a God that I knew loved me just the way I was would condemn me for that,” she concluded. Steph, an Italian Catholic that describes her family as "not that religious," also shares the belief that God "made them this way." Both Aileen and Steph expressed that they knew they could not and did not want to live without the other, and that they trusted and loved one another completely. They were each a better person for knowing the other.
In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme court unanimously ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to all rights and benefits of marriage but were split 5-4 on whether they had a fundamental right to marry under the New Jersey State constitution. The majority determined that no such right existed. Civil unions were then allowed when the New Jersey legislature passed a bill, but same-sex couples continued to argue that a civil union precluded them from being able to receive health and financial benefits.
In 2012, New Jersey lawmakers passed legislation to allow same-sex marriage, which Governor Christie vetoed. Then on June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, was unconstitutional, and in a 5-4 decision determined the federal government must provide the same benefits to gay couples as to heterosexual couples.
If Judge Jacobsen’s ruling is upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court, same-sex couples will be able to marry in New Jersey with both federal and state recognition. If it is overturned, New Jersey couples can still have civil unions with federal but not state recognition, even if they are married in a state that does recognize same sex unions.
How does all this really affect Aileen and Steph? In Adele’s popular song “Make You Feel My Love,” the song begins with the lyrics:
When the rain is blowing in your face,
And the whole world is on your case,
I could offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love.
This also happens to be Aileen and Steph’s ‘song,’ and one week ago, before Friday’s ruling, in between all the efforts to legalize same sex marriage, and with the blessing of their families, they got engaged. Steph gave Aileen her Mother’s emerald and diamond ring in a new platinum setting, and Aileen said yes. She then got Steph a claddagh ring as a token of her love. “I’m Italian” laughed Steph., “I didn’t know much about claddaghs.” Aileen’s ring represents her birthstone, diamond, and emerald for her Irish heritage. Steph’s claddagh ring, two hands cradling a crowned heart, the heart for love, the hands for friendship and the crown for loyalty, now rests on her left ring finger as well. The two plan to be married, perhaps next year. Where that will be will depends on what happens here in New Jersey, but they would like to be wed legally in West Orange.
“We’re not really political people,” said Aileen. "This isn’t about being gay, or about religion, or what the law says or doesn’t say. All I know is that Steph is the person I fell in love with.”