What Marriage Equality Means In A Red State Obsessed With Marriage And Family

“We have been waiting for a long time. Our kids have been waiting.” Joanna and Lindi Barney, who married in Salt Lake City on Friday, are one of hundreds of same-sex couples who tried to marry in the 24 hours after the state’s marriage ban was struck down.

Couples wait to apply for marriage licenses at the Salt Lake County Clerks office in Salt Lake City, Utah, Dec. 20, 2013. Jim Urquhart / Reuters / Reuters

Joanna and Lindi Barney were getting ready to go to a family Christmas party when they saw on Facebook that a federal judge had ruled Utah’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples unconstitutional. They were wearing shirts from the movie Frozen, their 3-year-old daughter was in her pajamas, and their 5-week-old daughter was asleep, but a friend who is an attorney told them the judge could issue a stay at any time, so they should go immediately.

“We just drove down,” Joanna Barney said. “We didn’t have our makeup on. We just kind of went as we were.”

They arrived at the Salt Lake County building in time to be one of 124 couples married Friday, a county record. The next day, hundreds lined up at the Weber County building hoping to receive marriage licenses, after hearing it would open on a Saturday. In the end though, they were told they would have to wait until Monday.

Utahns with same-sex partners want to get married — not much different than the rest of the state’s population.

Utah is a state with a culture that values marriage, family, and child-rearing — thanks in no small part to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City. It has the biggest families, the most households headed by married couples, the youngest ages for first marriage, the highest birth rates and the most families where at least one parent stays home with young children in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In a culture that values family like Utah does, many LGBT individuals have the same values. Salt Lake City has the highest percentage of same-sex parents out of any U.S. city with a population of more than one million, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. More than 1 in 4 same-sex couples in the city have children.

“Clearly, here in Salt Lake, I think we have one of the highest gay families per capita,” Barney said. “Most of us come from big families. Those values are instilled in us.”

Both her and her wife were raised in Latter-day Saint families of six and said they’ve wanted a large family of their own.

“There’s probably a lot more families you’ll see down here than other places because that’s our culture and that’s what’s important to us,” she said, noting the large number of children at the Salt Lake County building Friday.

Other regions of the country with traditionally strong conservative and religious populations like the South also have a large number of same-sex parents, more so than cities known for their large gay population like New York City or San Francisco. Although family values play a role in many same-sex couples’ decisions to be parents, another factor is the large number of people who have children from a former marriage.

States with cultures less tolerant to homosexuality create an environment where many gay men and women marry people of the opposite sex and have children. A study conducted by The New York Times suggested that in these states, there was a large population of closeted gay men. In 21 of the 25 states where the No. 1 search term for searches beginning with “Is my husband…” was “gay,” support for marriage equality is lower than the national average. Those who divorce later in life and enter into a same-sex relationship are numbered among same-sex couples with children.

“We have a lot of blended families from previous marriages,” said Alejandro Mora, spokesperson for Equality Utah.

For all same-sex couples with children, marriage equality is more than a symbol; as detailed in court cases challenging bans on same-sex couples’ marriages, it’s crucial to their role as parents. In states where there can only be one legal guardian of a child who has same-sex parents, for example, if the parent who is the guardian dies, that child can be put in foster care.

“One of these parents is a legal stranger to these kids,” Mora said. “Under the state’s current status, you have to be married in order to adopt.”

For Joanna and Lindi Barney, Friday was the realization of their hope for the day they could be married in the state they grew up in and call home.

“You’re legally married in some places, but then you come back to Utah and you’re not,” Joanna Barney said. “We have been waiting for a long time. Our kids have been waiting.”

For other couples — unable to rush to the office on Friday — Monday morning is their next opportunity.

Unsurprisingly in this state, couples are camping out overnight hoping to get married when county clerks’ offices in Salt Lake, Weber, and other counties open and before the judge in the marriage case considers whether to put same-sex couples’ marriages on hold while the state appeals his ruling.

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