Derence Kernek and Ed Watson became prominent faces in the California gay community’s campaign for the right to marry when they urged a federal appeals court earlier this year to halt the enforcement of Proposition 8 so they could wed before Watson succumbed to advancing illness.
On the eve of a Thursday hearing on challenges to a 2010 ruling that the voter initiative banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, Watson died at age 78 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and hypertension.
Gay rights activists lamented Watson’s death as a reminder of the harm inflicted on same-sex couples throughout the state because they are denied the right to marry.
“It’s ironic that he died on the eve of appeals about peripheral issues around a case that should have been settled more than a year ago,” said Richard Jacobs, chairman and founder of the gay rights advocacy group Courage Campaign, as he was en route to San Francisco for a hearing before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “None of this will matter to Ed or Derence.”
U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled on Aug. 4, 2010, that Proposition 8 violated the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians to due process and equal protection under the law. Sponsors of the initiative passed by 52% of Californians who voted in November 2008 have appealed Walker’s ruling and won a suspension of it pending the 9th Circuit’s ruling.
Proposition 8 supporters also filed suit claiming that Walker, who was in a same-sex relationship when he presided over the January 2010 trial, was biased on the matter and unable to conduct a fair trial. That argument failed before another federal judge, and it was the gay marriage opponents’ appeal of that ruling that was before the 9th Circuit on Thursday.
Kernek and Watson videotaped a plea to the 9th Circuit in March, asking that the court allow Walker’s ruling to take effect so they could marry while Watson could still remember their 40-year relationship.
“Just wanted to let you know that Ed passed at 22:15 this evening,” Kernek, 80, said in an email to friends and supporters from the couple’s home in Palm Springs.
The couple’s inability to marry deprived Watson of coverage under Kernek’s out-of-state retirement plan, imposing financial hardships.
Kernek could not be reached for comment because, according to Courage Campaign organizer Anthony Ash, their telephone was recently disconnected.