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Q&A with Jonathan Cole

Chair of the Tennessee Equality Project’s Shelby County Committee

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On June 24th, New York became the sixth state to legalize gay marriage, and because the state is so highly populated, that move nearly doubles the number of marriage-eligible gay and lesbian couples.

Equality advocates are hoping legalized gay marriage in New York will reshape public debate and lead to a domino effect in states across the country. But with a gay marriage ban approved by voters in Tennessee in 2006, it could be years before same-sex couples can tie the knot in the Volunteer State.

Tennessee Equality Project's Shelby County Committee chair Jonathan Cole, who married his partner in Massachusetts in 2008, talks about what New York marriage means for Tennessee and the rest of the country. — Bianca Phillips

Flyer: How will marriage in New York shape public opinion?

Cole: Because we will see more gay and lesbian couples getting married, I think you'll see America's comfort level increase. Even in Tennessee, you'll see an increase in support when people see that their marriage is not threatened because two men or two women are getting married. Gay couples are actually embracing a very conservative ideal as they're aspiring to marriage.

Can the constitutional amendment banning marriage in Tennessee be overturned?

Probably the hardest route would be to propose repealing that amendment through the constitutional process. It would take five years, because you'd have to have two consecutively elected General Assemblies to approve amending the constitution and putting that amendment to a popular vote in a referendum. The fifth year is when it would go on the ballot.

The other way is through the U.S. Supreme Court, the only court that can overturn a state constitutional amendment. They would have to find it in contradiction to protections that are already there as defined in the U.S. Constitution.

New York's law doesn't require that couples have residency there before marrying. Could that mean more Memphis couples going there to tie the knot?

Yes. In fact, I know of a gay couple who talked about getting married, and as a result of this decision in New York, they are in the process of planning to go there and do just that.

Why did you and your partner pick Massachusetts for your marriage?

Paul had to go to Massachusetts for work in 2008, and we just made an occasion of it. We've been together since 1998. In 2008, it was actually a perfunctory thing. We had a religious ceremony with all of our family in 2001 [in Memphis] at First Congo [Church]. At that time, there was no place where we could get married in a civil ceremony.

So why tie the knot if Tennessee doesn't offer any benefits?

Regardless of what the state of Tennessee says, we consider ourselves married. People marry each other. The state does not marry people. They can license a marriage, but that doesn't make a marriage.

We have the hope that somewhere down the line Tennessee or a future state that we live in would actually recognize our marriage, and we would already have that out of the way.

What are some of the disadvantages of the state not recognizing your marriage?

Things like Social Security survivorship benefits. In a married couple, if one passes before the other, they receive a portion of their deceased partner's Social Security benefits after retirement.

Also, if Paul were to die first, I would be taxed on the value of the house that we own together. If our marriage were recognized, that property would become mine without any tax penalties.

If our marriage were recognized, I wouldn't have to sign consent in the hospital saying this is the person I want to make legal decisions for me. If he were my legally recognized spouse, that wouldn't be questioned.

There are workarounds. We've signed medical power-of-attorneys and living wills together, but marriage has a lot of automatic rights that come with that license.

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