In Utah, new same-sex spouses return to legal limbo

Brandie Balken was driving to work Monday when she heard news that broke her heart yet steeled her resolve. A Supreme Court ruling had just shelved same-sex marriages in Utah, and the bond with her longtime partner was back at a frustrating, familiar place: legal limbo.

She got on the phone with her new spouse, Lisa, a Salt Lake City physical therapist; both grasped for words. Married for 17 days, they shared a dark laugh. What a short honeymoon it was.


"What about filing for insurance?" Lisa asked. "What about everything?"

"I don't know," Balken responded. "I don't know."

Such conversations took place across Utah as about 1,000 same-sex couples married under the umbrella of a late December federal court decision discovered their wedding carriage had turned — at least for now — into a pumpkin.

The high court decision came after Utah officials filed an emergency appeal of a Dec. 20 decision by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby, who ruled the state's ban on same-sex marriage violated gay and lesbian couples' constitutional rights. Shelby had refused to suspend his decision, as did the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

But Monday's Supreme Court stay halted new same-sex unions in the state while Utah appeals to the 10th Circuit — and the legal marriages of same-sex couples are in doubt during the appeal.

For many same-sex newlyweds, the ruling opened a complex legal trapdoor. Some new spouses had already changed their names. Others with children wondered how the decision would affect their status. Many asked: What do we tell the kids?

"It's crazy here, chaotic," said Laura Milliken Gray, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents numerous same-sex couples. "Clients are calling to figure out what's up with lives. Are their legal rights evaporating again, or not? I tell them that we believe their marriages were valued when entered. It would be unprecedented and cruel to take them away now."

One call in particular, she said "broke my heart," from a mother of three who wanted immediate answers, even though she knew that it would take days if not weeks to interpret the real-life effects of the decision.

"These couples want to protect their families. They want their children to have two parents and the full rights that other Utah citizens have," Gray said. "These people have been temporarily crushed."

Same-sex couples who had not married but planned to are wondering if they'll ever get the chance.

"These are couples who love each other, and many of them are raising children together," said Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah law professor and chairman of the board of Equality Utah, a group that is pushing for gay unions.

But Rosky emphasized that the court decision was not the end of the battle.

"A stay is only a temporary order," he said. "The justices likely concluded that it was more prudent to press 'pause' for the moment, so that the courts have an opportunity to hear the appeal."

Between 47,000 and 63,000 Utah residents are gay, lesbian or bisexual, out of the state's population of nearly 3 million, according to a census analysis by the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank.


As executive director of Equality Utah, Brandie Balken tried to calm scores of people who called her nonprofit Monday. But that doesn't make it any easier when she faces her own spouse.

Both in their 40s, they share a mutual love of the outdoors. On camping trips, Balken would run and Lisa would fly-fish. They moved in together, bought a house.

When they got married last month, Balken said she was surprised at how emotional she became at the ceremony. "We made this move to be committed to each other for a very long time — I just found myself crying," Balken recalled. "Lisa teared up as well, but she's more evenly keeled than I am."

Now, like many others, she's forced to play a waiting game.

Salt Lake City lawyer Amy Fowler was also stunned Monday. Her marriage to bartender Michelle Winburn — nicknamed Pidge because she's pigeon-toed — was a storybook affair, ever since the 35-year-old Fowler wooed her two years ago. "I was more persistent than all the other girls. I won out."

Last month, after the federal court ruling legalized same-sex marriage in Utah, Fowler went to Pidge's bar. "I told her 'I just want to give you a big hug. Whether we do it or not, I'm just so grateful that we can finally be recognized for who we are.'"

"Let's do it," Pidge said. "But I'm working!"

Her manager ushered them out the door with his blessings. But the line for a marriage license was too long that Friday. They returned Monday and waited eight hours to legally seal their pact.

"It didn't change anything, but at the same time it changed everything," Fowler said. "I woke up and told her that with the amount of paperwork it will take to get us out of this, we're in this for good."

On Monday, the couple's talk was more sobering. "I texted her to say we were lucky we did it when we did," Fowler said of the marriage vows. "Her response was 'Shoot. So this is where we're at. Shoot.'"

Claudia Geist, 37, a sociologist at the University of Utah, said her recent marriage to her partner of eight years had suddenly become much more complicated, especially since they were trying to legally adopt an 8-month-old girl.

"My wife is already changing her last name — she submitted her paperwork to the Social Security office," Geist said. The couple wanted to have the same last name to smooth their adoption plans.

"Now we don't know what will happen when our case comes up," Geist said. "There's this nagging worry that we'll get a judge who will not recognize our marriage. I really do think that in the long run history will be on our side and our marriage will stand. But these short-term consequences to the judge's ruling make me worry. And they make me sad."

But Geist and her partner, like many other same-sex couples in Utah, pledge to soldier on.

"Until I get a letter telling me otherwise," Geist said, "until the state of Utah finds a way to void our legal union, I will consider myself married."