Marriage Equality Gets a High Five: 5 Big, Gay, Illegal Weddings

Apr 07, 2014 at 8:41 AM ET

Jeremiah Pyant is a young flight attendant from Houston who is ready to get married. But when he exchanges vows with his fiancé, Jeff Robertson, later this month in New Mexico, he won’t get to experience what most newlyweds take for granted: permanence. After all, as Pyant flies from state to state, his marriage status will be placed in a dizzying topspin—legally recognized one minute, and completely void the next.

The fact that Pyant will get married at all is thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and New York-based creative agency Purpose. The two organizations came together to sponsor “My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding”—a campaign they launched in December 2013 “to raise awareness about inequality where same-sex marriage is not yet realized.” Nearly 400 couples entered, submitting their love stories online, and after hundreds of thousands of votes were cast, the Purpose team selected five winners. As one of the selected pairs, which all hail from states where gay marriage is illegal, Pyant and Robertson will receive $5,000 to plan their dream wedding.

“This is what changes people,” says Jeremy Heimans, CEO of Purpose, referring to the beaming couples at a reception in New York City Thursday night. “We created this campaign to totally reanimate the debate.” A cartoon animated Tim Gunn, of Project Runway fame, was one face of the campaign. His likeness explains the rules and the inconsistency of state and federal laws on same-sex marriage in a video on the website.

Heimans has worked on various projects at Purpose and All Out—an international gay rights group that shares office space—but this, he says, is the one that makes him most proud, and calls the winning couples “walking, living symbols of the marriage equality issue.”

Megan and Lindsey Smith (Lindsey already changed her last name), a white lesbian couple from Chattanooga, Tennessee, say the competition has been “a great catalyst to get conversations going in our community…to get people talking about marriage equality in a positive way. And we’re in the Bible Belt.”

Robertson and Pyant can relate to the provincial nature of the Smiths’ community. “It’s been hard growing up, especially in the South,” Pyant says tearfully, becoming emotional when he speaks of how it feels “seeing so many people have your back” at the event.

“I’m the crier,” he laughs. The two are actually already Internet-famous, thanks to a YouTube video of their proposal in Cancun, in which Pyant shrieks repeatedly and cries with happiness when Robertson gets down on one knee. His fiancé calls it an “Oscar-winning performance.”

“We want to be advocates of bringing the right to marry back to Texas with us,” Pyant says. “That’s what it means to us. We definitely want to use our notoriety in this contest to show how important it is to have everyone be able to marry.” They’re planning two weddings: the “equal rights wedding,” taking a hot-air balloon ride from El Paso, Texas, to New Mexico, where it’s legal to tie the knot; and then a ceremony in 2015 for their friends and Robertson’s family in Wisconsin.

Yet the problem all of these couples face will be returning to states that don’t yet validate their vows. “There are lots of couples who travel from one state to another to get married,” says Selene Kaye, the ACLU’s National Marriage Campaign Manager. “The problem is when they get back to their home state.” The sole exception is Oregon, which does recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. “There are thousands and thousands of couples in those 33 states who are experiencing this,” Kaye adds.

However, winners Rafael Vasquez and Humberto Niebla, a Hispanic couple that has been together for six years, have an additional reason for getting hitched. They live in Arizona—a state known for its unfriendliness to gays as well as racial minorities—but Niebla is also an undocumented immigrant. “It’s huge for me to finally give him everything he deserves,” Vasquez says, speaking of the post-marriage paperwork that will allow Niebla to “live like a normal U.S. citizen.” Even though Arizona doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, the union will be recognized on a federal level, allowing Niebla to attain citizenship.

Tamara Sheffield and Maryja Mae plan to get hitched on a train that will travel from their home base of North Carolina to New York. Afterward, they will have to file three separate tax returns because of the convoluted federal and state rules for recognition of their partnership. But they’ve been waiting a long time for this, and no amount of paperwork will stand in their way. “I think we’ve been together as long as some of these people have been alive,” Sheffield says, referring to the relatively young age of the other winning couples. Mae and Sheffield have been together for 24 years.

Still, Salisbury, North Carolina, will remain home for them after the wedding: “Someone has to stay to show them the way,” Mae says. The pair co-founded the Salisbury Pride Parade in 2011 and have faced some protests, but both say their community is overall very supportive, including the local police department. In fact, none of the couples Vocativ spoke to wanted to move out of their current cities or states.

Really, the only thing Mae and Sheffield need to make this a true dream wedding is for Stevie Nicks to officiate. Hey, why not dream big?

Says Mae: “Five years ago, I never thought I would have the chance to get married in my lifetime.”