Editor’s note: This is part two in a series of stories about the legalization of same-sex marriage in Alaska.
By Jenny Neyman
Of course life isn’t a fairy tale. What you want isn’t always what you get. Finances, illnesses, responsibilities, logistics — all can create insurmountable obstacles to one’s ideal scenario. Tammie Willis and Isabelle Boutin get that. They’re realistic. They know there’s no silver spoons or platters. They expected sacrifices to be made in order to make a life together.
But they didn’t feel like they should have to accept not even being able to try — being denied the right to even attempt to construct their life the way they wanted it. In the U.S., that land of the free, as gay people, they didn’t have the same opportunity as straight couples to even pursue the happiness of living in a place they love with the person they love.
“There is this segment of people in leadership positions who think it’s OK to deny one subgroup of people their rights because their beliefs are different. That’s the hard part for me,” Willis said.
Willis, originally from Virginia, moved to the central Kenai Peninsula by way of Oklahoma going on two years ago, taking a job as associate director of residence life at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus as the new residence hall was being built.
She quickly fell in love with the place and wanted to share it with the person she loved, but couldn’t. Boutin, an information technology specialist, is originally from Canada and had been working in Australia for 17 years. The two met through their mutual interest in online gaming. Their strategizing in “Star Wars: The Old Republic” expanded to conversations about other things, and a relationship developed via email, text messages and Skype. By the time Willis took the job at KPC, they were already strategizing a way to be together in the real world, not just online. They visited each other, and Boutin was as taken with Alaska as Willis had been.
“I really love the community around here, how friendly people are. When I visited and when I went back to Australia, that’s what I kept in my mind, ‘Wow, the people are so friendly.’ I just find people are really, really accepting,” Boutin said.
While the federal Defense of Marriage Act was still in place in the U.S., their options were limited. In order to live in the country, Boutin would have to immigrate, but she couldn’t get a K-1 fiancé visa with Willis as her intended spouse.
“There are 1,138 rights, benefits or privileges afforded to people who are married, and gay people (before the DOMA decision) had none of them,” Willis said.
Gay marriage isn’t legalized in Australia but the country does afford the same benefits to gay couples as straight, so Willis considered moving to Boutin. But she had just taken and fallen in love with her KPC job, and after 17 years, Boutin was getting tired of hers. Gay marriage is recognized in Canada, where Boutin also had citizenship, so they also considered moving there, but neither had a job prospect there.
“We were talking about our relationship and being able to carry forward, and our choices were Australia or Canada. The third choice we had was just to leave our relationship in limbo,” Willis said. “Isabell knew how much I loved living in Alaska and love what I’m doing at KPC, which is why it was a dilemma in us trying to figure out how to make things work. But Alaska wasn’t an option.”
Then, in June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court repealed a key portion of DOMA. That afforded gay couples the same federal marriage benefits afforded to straight couples. Among them, immigration. Once Willis and Boutin wrapped their heads around the news, their decision became obvious.
“I don’t think either of us ever expected DOMA to be struck down in our lifetime, so when it did happen it took us a little while to get over the shock of what that actually meant for us,” Willis said. “To have that choice, ‘Oh, wow, Alaska is now a choice,’ it was the choice I think we both wanted to make. The other two were the choices we were making because we didn’t have Alaska as a choice. The choice we wanted wasn’t available to us. Once it became available, we didn’t have much discussion behind that.”
The K-1 fiancé visa gives an immigrant a 90-day window in the U.S. in which to get married, or else be deported. Willis and Boutin only needed two. Willis met Boutin in San Francisco and they were married the next day at City Hall, under a bust of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to a political position in California, on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was killed in 1978 and has become a martyr figure for gay activism in San Francisco. Same-sex marriage was legalized in California in June 2008, then barred in November 2008 by the passage of state constitutional amendment Proposition 8, and legalized again with the Supreme Court decision in June 2013.
“Thinking about the fact that we were able to do what we did because DOMA was struck down and because Prop 8 was nullified, we were part of history getting married in San Francisco. So there was a huge moment of reflection for us, ‘Wow, we just experienced this history, but we also kind of become a part of it,’” Willis said.
Marriage was a requirement of immigration, but the couple wanted to do so anyway, with Boutin proposing before the DOMA decision came about. They would have had a commitment ceremony, if that were their only option.
“Even though it wasn’t going to be legal or binding, it would have been for us,” Willis said.
With the DOMA decision, their San Francisco ceremony meant they could now live together in the U.S. The University of Alaska extends the same benefits to same-sex spouses as straight spouses, which greatly eased their living in the state. But same-sex marriage wasn’t yet recognized in Alaska, so any state benefits for married couples, as well as any federal benefits administered by the state, such as Social Security, also weren’t available.
In 1998, Alaska voters passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. On Oct. 12, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that amendment unconstitutional. Though the state appealed the ruling and requested a stay on marriage licenses being issued to same-sex couples, the issue made its way through the 9th Circuit Court and up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Oct. 17 denied the state’s stay, allowing marriages to proceed.
“DOMA gave us the big one — immigration, the ability to be together in the same place. But the recognition in Alaska gives us everything else,” Willis said. “I don’t think either of us ever expected that marriage equality would come to Alaska in our lifetime. We never imagined it. But at the same time we never imagined DOMA ever being struck down in our lifetime. Not only are we seeing it in our in lifetime, but the place we call home now acknowledges our relationship and our marriage.”
Perhaps even more surprising, they said, is the response to the change that Willis and Boutin have observed in the state, what with Gov. Sean Parnell and the Department of Law pursuing appeals and stays to block the action.
“Even his supporters are saying the same thing, ‘I love you, Parnell, but stop it. It makes no sense. Stop spending our money,’” Boutin said.
“Everything we’ve been reading, the response from the majority of Alaskans has been, ‘Get over it, Parnell,’” Willis said. “There are people saying, ‘I define marriage as one man and one woman, but who am I to judge? Who are you to deny them the same rights?’ It’s really been a great experience seeing those comments and seeing people’s response, ‘Everybody’s entitled to the same rights. This is not about religion, it’s about people’s rights.’”
They’ve felt that response personally on the central peninsula, as well.
“I’ve not faced anything in the time I’ve been here other than a very positive response from everybody,” Willis said. “The biggest surprise to me has been when I talk about my wife to new people, there’s not that, ‘Huh, what?’ It’s just, ‘Oh, OK.’ It’s a natural part of the conversation, just as if we were a heterosexual couple talking about our spouses. There’s no hiccup, no hesitation, no second look.”
“At the college, especially, they all know me, they all know I’m her wife and I never felt from anybody any uncomfortable feeling. It’s even better than in Australia in those terms around here,” Boutin said.
Since Boutin arrived in Soldotna seven months ago, the two have been settling into their new life. They bought a house in Sterling. They’ve adopted three rescue dogs — Shadow, Twinkie and Spike. Willis’ father and Boutin’s mother have visited, and the couple had a big party with friends and family to celebrate their marriage. They still play online games together, but now also enjoy life in the real world.
They don’t know what all the future will hold. Again, there are no guarantees. But as of right now, they’re enjoying what feels like a magical ending.
“We still spend a considerable amount of time gaming, but now we can spend time together doing real stuff,” Willis said. “We had a really good time this summer just seeing the sights of Alaska and the peninsula. We did the wildlife cruise, we took the ferry to Seldovia, made some trips to Homer and Seward.
“We’re hoping to spend the rest of lives together — that’s definite. And I think we want to spend the bulk of that here in Alaska. I think we both, the longer we stay here, the more we’re falling in love with Alaska,” she said.