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LGBT community looks to educate, break free from red tape after landmark ruling
First gay marriages have taken place in Hall County
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Dianna and Cher Singleton dance around before their wedding in 2012. - photo by For The Times

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Dianna and Cher Singleton of Flowery Branch married in 2012. Now, that union is recognized in Georgia.

“For me, I didn’t think it would be this soon,” Cher said. “It was pretty shocking.”

The Rev. Anthony Coley, 42, married his husband in Massachusetts a few years ago, another union now recognized in Georgia. Coley grew up in Hall County and now pastors a church in Toccoa that is friendly to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Jason Hewett, 47, of Gainesville was there when the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case that would ultimately legalize gay marriage in all 50 states.

“You don’t ever want to say with a 100 percent certainty, but we all were feeling pretty good about it going our way,” he said. “We just didn’t know how they were going to reach it technically in their arguments.”

Hewett has been active in the fight for gay and lesbian rights for years, participating in rallies, conferences and legal hearings.

“It was really astounding,” he said of the experience in Washington, D.C., this past April.

“We had to camp out in line like we were getting concert tickets. It was just the most unbelievable thing.”

But once the initial wave of emotion following the court’s ruling subsided, supporters of LGBT rights quickly transitioned into the next phase in the fight for their equality, which includes educating couples about the practical implications of the ruling and impacts on local government and businesses.

The court’s verdict carries the weight of new opportunities such as health care and tax benefits for gay and lesbian Americans, but it also presents new challenges.

“To me, the biggest thing that’s next is working in the area of discrimination” in housing and employment, for example, Hewett said. “Really, that’s the most important thing because it affects more people … but obviously marriage made sense as the first thing to do because it’s something everyone can relate to.”

The LGBT journey

Gays and lesbians were not the only Americans who celebrated the court’s ruling.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Linda Sartore, 68, a Gainesville resident whose oldest son is gay. “I was so excited. It was like there was hope for these people.”

Sartore learned that her son was gay more than two decades ago during a time when it was far less socially acceptable to be “out of the closet.”

“The only thing you’re upset about is what’s going to happen in their life because there is so much discrimination, and people can be really cruel,” Sartore said. “There’s nothing they want that’s any different than what we want.”

Sartore said she never tried to change her son, who has gone on to lead a successful business career and be an advocate for LGBT rights.

“I get kind of strong-minded and very protective toward him because I know what a fine person he is,” she said. “I’m just really, really proud of him.”

Coley, who founded the New Day Worship Center in 2009, said he was raised in a conservative church community in Hall County but felt pushed away from his faith because of his sexual orientation. Only later, after some soul searching, did he find his way back.

“Even though people said it would be a hard road to be in such a rural community with an LGBT-friendly church, we have had no problems whatsoever,” he said.

Dianna Singleton, 29, also was raised in a Southern religious family.

“Once it was found out, I was disowned for a while,” said Dianna. “So it was kind of hard.”

As a black woman, she said she faced an additional barrier to acceptance.

“It’s astounding as much as the history has shown black people going through so many things, that they would discriminate against another sub-group,” she said.

The fact that some family members turn their backs on gay and lesbian relatives is upsetting to Sartore.

“I don’t understand how they could do that,” she said. “If life is so important, how can you turn your back on someone because they happen to be different than you?”

Cher Singleton, 25, was born in Gainesville, and her family and friends were mostly accepting of her sexuality.

She came out in high school and helped support other gay friends.

“I would say it was relatively fine for me,” Cher Singleton said. “It wasn’t traumatic. No one disowned me or anything like that.”

The court’s ruling, though, brings vindication and excitement to the LGBT community.

Marriage matters

Marriage licenses have been issued for at least two same-sex couples in Hall since the court’s ruling last month, according to records from the probate court.

Unlike some counties in some states, there have been few if any objections to following the ruling in Georgia.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state’s leading LGBT advocacy group, said lawmakers deserve a lot of credit for limiting any backlash.

“I also think it’s important to acknowledge that both the attorney general and governor have been really clear that Georgia would follow the federal law on this,” he said. “And I think that sort of political leadership has helped the transition here in Georgia be so incredibly smooth. And in some other places it hasn’t.”

Graham said Georgia Equality has been working hard in recent weeks to educate gays and lesbians about their new rights, guiding them through the legal process of getting married and advising them about the practical, legal consequences.

For example, couples that receive premarital counseling receive a discount on the cost of their marriage license.

And for those couples previously married in another state, there is no reason to apply for a license in Georgia. Doing so could create a paperwork nightmare, Graham said, especially with regard to tax filings and other matters.

However, civil unions and domestic partnerships are not the same as marriage, so couples united in these ways may need to consider getting an official license in the state.

Cher Singleton said filing taxes has been costly and time-consuming for the couple because their marriage was not previously recognized in Georgia and they had to file separately.

“I’m hoping that will now mean we won’t have to do that,” she said.

Her wife echoed these sentiments.

“No more crazy tax forms,” Dianna Singleton said, delighted.

Graham said Georgia Equality provides a list of marriage officiates, available counseling programs and other information for couples on its website.

Another issue that requires education is the involvement of churches and other religious institutions.

Graham said the First Amendment protects churches, and no one is required to provide marriage services for same-sex couples.

“Clergy members have never been forced to marry a couple that they didn’t want to marry,” he added. “And nothing changes.”

Health care changes

President Barack Obama moved a few years ago to require that hospitals allow same-sex couples the same visitation rights typically afforded to other family members.

But not all hospitals required to meet this stipulation have complied, and LGBT activists believe the court’s ruling will help compel them to do so.

The Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy in 2012, according to spokeswoman Melissa Tymchuk.

“Visitors will not be restricted, limited or otherwise be denied visitation privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability,” the policy states.

The court’s ruling also opens the door for same-sex couples to receive additional health care coverage.

For example, Coley said his husband, who has some pre-existing medical conditions, can now be carried on a mutual insurance policy.

It’s a benefit the Singletons also now have.

“We’re definitely excited about that,” Dianna Singleton said.

School policies

Dianna Singleton is the former president of the Spectrum Club at the University of North Georgia, an LGBT student group that helped get the school to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policies. The Singletons both graduated from the school in 2012.

She hopes the court’s ruling will lead other universities to adopt similar policies, which could help fight bullying against gays and lesbians in classrooms.

Stories of gay and lesbian teenagers committing suicide have circulated the Internet in recent years, and Dianna Singleton said she hopes the court’s ruling will reduce stigma and provide a safer place for students to come out.

“We’re hoping the school system will now take this more seriously,” she added. “I hope that this gives (young gays and lesbians) more hope and not want to take their lives.”

Local government and business impacts

The governments of Gainesville and Hall are currently reviewing their policies to determine how the court’s ruling impacts nondiscrimination statutes and benefits for workers.

“We are currently working with our attorneys and benefit providers to determine any amendments we may need to make to our benefits and policies,” said Gainesville Human Resources Director Janeann Allison. “I’m not sure at this point what all changes will be made to our policy. No matter what, we don’t allow discrimination against anyone.”

On Thursday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission affirmed its previous ruling that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited under the sex discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act.

The ruling, however, applies only to the claims of federal employees and is not binding on federal courts.

However, the ruling corresponds with changes made by some local governments in recent years to protect gays and lesbians in the workplace.

“Sexual orientation is already considered by the EEOC under sex discrimination, so this ruling won’t affect us in that regard because we have had our EEO policy in place for many years,” Hall County Human Resources Director Bill Moats said. “I’m sure it goes without saying that we take all matters related to discrimination and harassment very seriously.”

The court’s ruling also has impacts on private industry.

Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, urged businesses to review their policies, particularly with regard to health care benefits provided to the spouses of employees.

The path ahead

“It has to be followed out,” Cher Singleton said of the court’s ruling.

Following up with county clerks and probate judges to ensure they are complying with the court’s ruling remains a priority, Graham said, and monitoring will continue.

Because there are no laws against discriminating against gays and lesbians in housing and employment in many states, Hewett said education remains a focal point of efforts going forward, especially in politically conservative communities like Hall.

But he believes steps are being taken in the right direction.

“Just to be able to know that that stigma won’t be entrenched in our government,” and that equal opportunity is becoming more common for gays and lesbians, is a good feeling, Hewett said.

Coley said he hopes the court’s ruling will allow people to be more accepting of their gay and lesbian family members.

“So we have had challenges in that people want to attend (the church), they want to be a part, but they are so afraid of their family response,” he said.

Coley hopes to be an example to those who want to be open and honest about their sexual orientation.

“It has given me more freedom knowing the Supreme Court is behind us,” he said.

Sartore also hopes the court’s ruling will provide family members, who may have been reticent previously, to openly welcome their gay and lesbian sons, daughters, brothers and sisters.

“People have to decide if they love somebody enough to be able to accept them for who they are,” she said.

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