In Spring of 2012, across from my childhood home, my neighbors planted a “Vote For Amendment One” sign on their lawn. That coming May, voters across North Carolina would vote for or against the statement “Marriage is between one man and one woman.” Guess my neighbors were voting in favor. And truthfully, I wasn’t a fan of them beforehand, but this sign made my 14 year-old self angry. My neighbors had no problem putting their homophobia on display.
Our avenue wasn’t busy by any means, maybe ten or so houses the whole length. But the sign wasn’t meant to be an advertisement, appealing others to vote in favor of Amendment One, but rather it was a statement on their values. The cheaply made campaign sign made the statement “I don’t accept nor do I respect the gay community.” No one in my family seemed to mind this, or at least not as much as I did. It wasn’t until I came to terms with my queer sexuality that all of the pieces came together and I understood why I glared at my neighbors whenever they walked their dog, as if to make the point to say “I don’t respect you.”
I don’t know how the rest of my neighbors voted. In fact, I don’t know how my mom voted. I’d like to believe she voted against it, but I’m afraid to ask. Although gay marriage was legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court just three years later, I think we’ve already forgotten how normalized homophobia was in 2012. I remember carpooling with a kid who said the fa-word, Glee being the only source of queer-representation, and Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, maintaining his opposition to gay marriage. Gay marriage, and for that matter the queer community, were seen as only existing in larger, queer-friendly cities such as San Francisco or New York City. Not Raleigh, or anywhere in the South.
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Amendment One passed successfully, 61% to 39%. Despite not being out of the closet yet, or even knowing that I was in the closet, it still came as a shock to me. I knew gay marriage was not accepted in my now-former place of faith, the Catholic Church, but I still held out hope that it could one day be legalized in North Carolina.
Notably, the state-wide vote took place during the primaries, as opposed to to the general election, which always has higher turnout. In addition, there was little-to-no contest in the Democractic Presidential Primary, given that Obama was running for a second term, so there were few registered Democrats in comparison to registered Republicans. The odds for progressives were not great from the start.
Like all too many life-altering laws, the text of the Amendment was sparse. Just two sentences:
“Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.”
Its vagueness and contradictory phrasing only provided confusion for the voters. For example, it states that heterosexual marriage is the only domestic legal union, and yet does not prohibit other forms of legal contracts, such as an employer granting healthcare to its employee and partner, a benefit that usually only applies to marriage or civil unions. However, the lack of clarity provides many avenues of interpretation and could have had lasting negative effects in the lives of same-sex and even heterosexual unmarried partnerships.
I never could quite articulate why the Amendment made me so upset or how it only felt worse when my family seemed to show such indifference. I desperately wanted us to put up a sign in retaliation, declaring our familial hatred for Amendment One. I wanted my parent to be bitter to them, to challenge them, to desecrate their lawn, even. But to my family, immediate and extended, it was just another passed law, like allowing the construction of a new road or banning loud noises on weekdays. It wouldn’t affect their future and it wouldn’t be years until I realized how it would have affected mine.
Fortunately, the Amendment was relatively short-lived. Not through a change of legislators’ hearts, but by a series of judicial rulings. First, in July of 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit declared Virginia’s similar amendment unconstitutional. Judge Henry F. Floyd and Judge Roger L. Gregory determined that an amendment banning same-sex marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution under the due process and equal protection clauses. Ultimately, the Court determined that marriage is a civil right and individual freedom in the United States. This ruling applied to all states in the Fourth Circuit, including North Carolina. After denying that same-sex marriage is considered unconstitutional, petitions and court cases piled up to officially abolish the Amendment One.
Then, in October of 2014, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ filed a case to permit same-sex marriages. The plaintiffs, comprised of reverends, rabbis, and other leaders of faith, uniquely argued that it was against their religious freedom in the First Amendment to be unable to perform same-sex marriages and unions. On October 10th, Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. ruled in favor of the Synod and effectively nullified Amendment One, legalizing same-sex marriage in North Carolina. Across the state, couples married after years and years of waiting.
I remember hearing about it the same way most of us get our news in high school — a Back to the Future movie night. Halfway through someone said “hey, they just legalized gay marriage in North Carolina,” and we cheered for about half a moment before focusing back on the movie. It wasn’t until after Marty McFly made it back home that I had a moment to genuinely process the Court’s decision. And more than anything, I felt relief. Knowing there was a change in tide and a route to marriage for everyone and that maybe the South was making progress, I felt a weight lifted. I was still in the closet at that time, but the legalization of marriage made it much easier to come out years later.
Claire Goray graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2020 with a major in American Studies and minors in Writing for the Screen & Stage and Sexuality Studies. Her interests include representation in film & media, examining the HIV/AIDS crisis, and studying the importance of historical monuments.