For Margie Cook, Monday was both completely ordinary and utterly extraordinary. She started the day talking to her partner about the everyday business of life and ended it celebrating a historic moment in Virginia’s history.
“When I left home, I said to my partner of 17 years, ‘Did you transfer the money so we can pay the mortgage?’” said the associate director for diversity education. “And then, later in the afternoon, it was, ‘Oh by the way, your country’s now going to recognize your relationship of 17 years.’ … That was an amazing feeling.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Cook joined with other members of the William & Mary community to celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage in Virginia. Leaders with the Safe Zone Ally Program hosted “Wedding Cake Wednesday” on the Sadler Center Terrace, where they handed out free pieces of cake and took photos of students, faculty and administrators with a sign that read, “Virginia is for all lovers.”
Safe Zone is an educational program that seeks to create a network of allies across campus to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) members of the William & Mary community. Cook was in a meeting with its leadership team on Monday soon after news broke that the U.S. Supreme Court would not review the Fourth Circuit Court’s decision to overturn Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage.
“We thought it would be a good idea to celebrate, so we decided on cake -- something lighthearted,” said Brittany Reynoso ‘15.
A steady stream of people stopped by the table marked with a rainbow flag to share their excitement about the Supreme Court’s decision and sample the two cakes – one with “marriage equality” printed on the top and another with “Virginia is for lovers of equality.”
“[We’re celebrating] that Virginia is taking one step in the right direction and hopefully more to come,” said Morris Chen ’14.
Professor of Hispanic Studies George Greenia was among the W&M community members to join in the celebration. Later that afternoon, he planned to go to human resources and sign his spouse, Tom, up for health benefits, something that will save the couple nearly $1,000 a month.
“I’m so proud of William & Mary for finally doing this,” he said. “The way the entire community has come together on this issue, it’s so moving and it’s so courageous. And we have a terrific president, terrific administration who have all stood behind us. It’s a great day.”
Jeffrey B. Trammell ’73 – the university’s first openly gay Rector – was among those who have been pushing for the benefits for years. In an email Monday to Equality WM, W&M’s faculty and staff LGBTQ organization, Trammell thanked Greenia and others like him for persevering in their efforts.
“We are privileged to be part of this revolution in American society, but we are even more privileged to see our community finally achieve protection under the U.S. Constitution,” Trammell said in the email. “Some 250 years after Professors Small and Wythe opened young Jefferson’s mind to the Enlightenment and the inherent rights of individuals, enabling him at age 33 to write that ‘all men are created equal,’ his visionary recognition is further perfected to reflect the reality of LGBT citizens and our rights. The legacy of Jefferson’s education on our campus continues to play a role in shaping American society.”
Shortly after the news came out on Monday, President Taylor Reveley sent a message to the W&M campus community saying he expected the governor to soon address its impact on state employees, including the availability of benefits for same-sex spouses.
“William & Mary will move promptly to put these benefits into effect for our people as soon as feasible,” said Reveley in the email. “We believe this long-overdue moment will come shortly.”
And that it did. The next day, the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management sent an email to state employees with information on benefits for same-sex spouses. On Wednesday, John Poma '86, M.B.A. '00, associate vice president for human resources at William & Mary, sent university employees another email with instructions on how to sign same-sex spouses up for benefits.
Efforts to gain those benefits have been 21 years in the making, said Greenia. In 1993, William & Mary became the first university in Virginia to host a public conversation on domestic partner benefits, and the next year, the university hosted the Commonwealth’s first and only statewide conference on the topic, he said. Since then, students, faculty, staff and alumni have worked to keep the issue alive at both the campus and state levels. For instance, the W&M Faculty Assembly endorsed domestic-partner benefits three times, most recently passing a resolution in September 2013.
“We urge the state universities in the Commonwealth to eliminate the existing discrimination in benefits as soon as possible,” the resolution says.
Students have also been discussing this issue for years, and The Flat Hat has written several editorials on the topic, including one in January that urged students to fight for the benefits. Student organizations such as William and Larry, a gay-straight alliance formed in 2013 to lobby the Virginia Assembly for gay rights, have also worked on the forwarding the effort.
Although the process was a gradual one, “the College has always worked to build the moral consensus that must precede administrative and legislative action,” Greenia said. “The resolve of our campus community to show its respect and solidarity with its gay and lesbian members found ways to express itself no matter the disapproval of outsiders.”
The Supreme Court’s decision Monday “acknowledged the groundswell that William & Mary helped build, first in our own community and then across America as our students moved into the world and into positions of authority and responsibility,” said Greenia, who added he married his partner in the Wren Chapel 25 years ago. “Together we helped make this day inevitable.”
Throughout the week, colleagues have been offering Greenia their congratulations, he said. Those warm wishes were one of several things happening on campus in response to Monday’s news. Thursday, the Wren Chapel hosted its first same-sex wedding recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Provost Michael R. Halleran reported on the administration’s “joy at the news” during an Arts & Sciences faculty meeting, said Greenia, and Reveley and current Rector Todd A. Stottlemyer '85 echoed that support during a campus forum on Thursday.
Stottlemyer said the news was good for Virginia and will allow state agencies, such as William & Mary, the ability to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff. Previously, public colleges and universities have been at a competitive disadvantage because private businesses have offered benefits to same-sex couples for 25 years or more.
“It’s nice to see the public sector catch up with the private sector,” Stottlemyer said. “We want to attract everyone we possibly can to the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
As Cook celebrated on Wednesday – handing out cake a cheerful exclamation of “Happy Marriage Equality!” – she did so with so with the knowledge that there is still work to be done.
“First of all, this is a state decision. There is still inequality in terms of not everyone in every state has this right yet,” she said. “And marriage equality isn’t the only social justice issue where we still need to attain justice in our country. For LGBTQ identified people and for issues around race and gender and religion, there is still work to be done, and I’m still cognizant of that while I celebrate this.”