Anthony Bernens and his partner, Andrew Neugebauer, have been together 20 years. Anthony (pictured, left) is a doctor of internal medicine at John Muir Medical Center, Andrew (right) works as a software engineer, and they own a home together in a friendly neighborhood near downtown Walnut Creek.
They first married in San Francisco in 2004, when Mayor Gavin Newsom okayed same-sex marriages in that city, then married again in June at the Contra Costa County courthouse in Martinez, after the California Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that lesbian and gay couples have the same constitutional right to marry as heterosexuals.
They were devastated that California voters narrowly approved Proposition 8 in November’s general election. But the ongoing debate about Proposition 8 wasn’t what brought to the front of Walnut Creek’s City Hall on a bright Saturday morning.
They were among the three dozen or so protesters at the corner of North Main Street and Civic Drive who were demonstrating against the 1996 federal “Defense of Marriage Act.” Anthony, Andrew, and the other protesters–many central Contra Costa County residents–waved rainbow flags and held signs saying “Separate is Not Equal” and an “Discrimination is Always Wrong.”
They were also there to help in a nationwide effort to gather at least 1 million signatures on a letter and petition to present to Barack Obama on his first day in office as president of the United States.
The protest is organized by Join the Impact, a movement of people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community to achieve “full equality for all.” Join the Impact says: “This letter will remind President-elect Barack Obama of the promises he made to us to repeal DOMA. It will also serve as a pledge from our community that we will hold him to his promises and help him achieve them.”
According to Join the Impact, DOMA, passed under the Clinton administration in 1996, “defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman and denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages — even if they are legal in a same-sex couple’s home state.”
“It’s extremely important for me and my partner to stay married,” says Anthony. Contrary to public perception that local or state laws regarding domestic partnership grant gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, Anthony and Andrew say DOMA still denies them a number of federal rights. Join the Impact says same sex-couples are denied more than 1,000 rights and benefits granted to heterosexual couples, including Social Security benefits.
Anthony and Andrew say they can file their state taxes jointly but have to file their federal taxes separately. Also, just because California recognizes their domestic partnership and possibly still their marriage (while the legality of Proposition 8 is sorted out through various court challenges), that doesn’t mean their marriage is honored in another state. Anthony recalls how, in the early 1990s, he became very ill during a family camping trip to Pennsylvania and had to go to the hospital. Andrew, because he was not legally considered “family,” wasn’t allowed in to be with Anthony at his bedside.
“There are all this little things you have to go through that are not the same for [heterosexual couples],” Andrew says.
The two moved to Walnut Creek in 1997, and their neighbors know about their relationship and welcome their presence. In fact, “No on 8” campaign signs were posted throughout their neighborhood in the lead-up to the election. They add that after they were married in June, their relationship gained a new level of respect, even amongst longtime friends who had long regarded them as married.
In a November 26 letter they co-wrote to the Contra Costa Times
, they said: “As domestic partners, we found that it had much less respect and social significance than marriage. People didn’t congratulate us when we got our certificate from the state. People didn’t ask what it was like to be in a domestic partnership — separate, not equal.”
As Anthony and Andrew talked, the other protesters cheered on motorists who gave them honks of approval. The protesters also gave out M&M cookies to people who signed their petition. At one point, though, a black SUV passed south on Main Street and shouted something derogatory to the group. Another protester, who works with Concord’s Rainbow Community Center, shrugged it off and said he was used to it.
Anthony expressed a common view among those who favor same-sex marriage. He doesn’t understand why a certain segment of the heterosexual popularion feels that their own marriages or families are threatened by his desire to make a legal lifetime commitment to the man he loves. He figures that if those people got to know some gay people, they might learn that there is nothing to fear. “That’s why we’re out here, to say we’re living in this community. We’re a part of it, too.”