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Black gay couples in Mass. mark marriage anniversary

Talia Whyte
Black gay couples in Mass. mark marriage anniversary
Regina Jones-Jenkins (left) and Beverly Jenkins got married last year after a 30-year courtship. They share a home in Quincy, where they have a very active family life with three children and four grandchildren. Like hundreds of other gay and lesbian couples across Massachusetts this week, they celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Commonwealth’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. (Photo: Talia Whyte)

Author: Talia WhyteRegina Jones-Jenkins (left) and Beverly Jenkins got married last year after a 30-year courtship. They share a home in Quincy, where they have a very active family life with three children and four grandchildren. Like hundreds of other gay and lesbian couples across Massachusetts this week, they celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Commonwealth’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage.

Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples across Massachusetts are celebrating their fifth wedding anniversaries this week and, while same-sex marriage remains a contentious issue, the state’s black gay community wants opponents to know that the lingering anger and confusion toward their unions are much ado about nothing.

The Commonwealth made history on Nov. 18, 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court delivered its judgment in the hotly contested case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health. In that landmark ruling, the court declared that the state could not deny same-sex couples that wished to marry the same benefits and protections afforded in civil marriage, and that the state would be required to allow same-sex marriages to start taking place on May 17, 2004.

The decision made Massachusetts the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. Four other states have since followed suit; Connecticut legalized the practice last October, Iowa did the same last month, and it is scheduled to become legal in Vermont and Maine in September. California effectively legalized same-sex marriage last May, but voters rejected that decision by approving a constitutional amendment on state ballots last November.

Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons hosted a fifth-anniversary celebration at City Hall last Sunday. Cambridge was the first city in the nation to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples five years ago, and Simmons said she wanted to recall the energy of those times by welcoming couples who wanted to get married or renew their vows.

Simmons, who is the nation’s first openly lesbian black mayor, is also a justice of the peace. She remembers the excitement she felt five years ago, when gay couples for whom she had performed commitment ceremonies started to come back, wanting to be legally married.

“I call it New Year’s Eve in May,” Simmons said. “It was really an opportunity [for gay couples] to enjoy the rights of full level of citizenship in the Commonwealth.”

Simmons said that she herself hopes to take advantage of the opportunity by marrying her partner this summer.

Over the last five years, the mayor said, she has noticed that some in the black community have come around to accepting gay marriage, possibly because they realize married gay couples are no different from married straight couples.

“Marriage is a marriage is a marriage,” Simmons said. “Once we start to think that way, some of those barriers that keep us from thinking inclusively will erode.”

When she assumed Cambridge’s top spot, Simmons followed fellow trailblazer Kenneth E. Reeves, who holds the honor of being the country’s first openly gay black man to become mayor. Now a Cambridge city councilor, Reeves has been with his partner, G. Allan Johnson, for nearly 40 years, but said he has no intentions of getting married anytime soon.

Like Simmons, Reeves said he has also seen attitudes toward marriage equality change for the positive in the local black community. But, he added, the community still needs to be more honest with itself about homosexuality.

“There are gay people in the black community, but the community pretends we don’t exist,” he said. “We have to have a new conversation about this.”

According to statistics provided by the state, there were 12,167 same-sex marriages in Massachusetts through last September. South End residents Arnold Sapenter and Joseph Reed were one of those couples to get married legally five years ago; however, they have been partners for 39 years.

The couple met when they were students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and they say the secret to the longevity of their relationship is based on respect for one another and shared belief in family values. They said they chose to get married because they felt that they wanted to honor the bravery of the plaintiffs in the Goodridge case.

“You can’t have separate but equal rules for people,” Reed said. “You can’t have one group of people with rights and the other with a whole different set of rights. It’s just not right.”

Regina Jones-Jenkins and Beverly Jenkins got married last year after a 30-year courtship. They share a home in Quincy, where they have a very active family life with three children and four grandchildren. They say that people who at first feel uncomfortable about their relationship quickly change their minds once they realize that they are just like any other family.

“We pay rent and bills, cook meals and take care of our children,” Jones-Jenkins said. “Is that different from what a straight couple does?”

Jones-Jenkins said she thinks that more black religious leaders need to follow the example of others, like President Barack Obama, who support taking the steps necessary to help make gays feel more welcome in the community.

While Obama has said that he is not in favor of same-sex marriage, he does support civil unions, as well as other benefits and protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, including bringing an end to the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which bans homosexuals from disclosing their sexual orientation.

“The leader sets the tone, and [Obama] is setting the tone on this issue,” Jones-Jenkins said.

While the debate over same-sex marriage rages on throughout the U.S., Jones-Jenkins said she and Beverly are spending these days getting ready for their youngest daughter’s graduation from college and enjoying their lives together.

“We live just like everyone else,” Jones-Jenkins said. “We only ask that you respect us, just like you would want us to respect your relationship.”