Ashley smiled as she took Leila’s hands in hers. They had waited so long for this moment, and now they could finally marry. Ashley saw Leila in her bright white dress and knew she had never seen anybody more beautiful in her whole life.
She remembered the moment they had first met in high school. There was Ashley, the nervous transfer student, and Leila had made her feel at home, in school and in her heart. They had defied tradition and public opinion to go to the prom together, but in the end, who had been able to stop them? That last dance was one of the great moments of Ashley’s life, and she hoped Leila treasured it as much as she did.
“I now pronounce you spouses for life,” the mayor said, and Ashley snapped back to the present, grasping Leila in a gentle embrace and kissing her deeply. Clapping rose up from the friends and family surrounding them, and for a moment all their cares and fears were cast to the wind. They didn’t have to think about uncertainty, didn’t have to think about tomorrow. There was only the present, and all the joy that brought.
As they left City Hall, emerging from a shower of confetti in their matching wedding gowns, their hands clasped, Ashley felt Leila’s hand tense in hers. Looking up, she saw a small crowd of protesters who had assembled at the corner, holding placards that said “Marriage is between a man and a woman”, and “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”. Ashley gave Leila’s hand a comforting squeeze. She had always been so sensitive to criticism, so easily hurt by those who opposed their relationship, whereas Ashley could care less what others thought. She was happy just to be with the one she loved.
That night they sat on the porch of their home, comforted in the warm darkness of the fall night.
“Leila…” Ashley said, “No matter what happens, you know I’ll always love you, right?”
“I know,” Leila said, “I promised you that I wouldn’t let them bother me. That if they tear apart our marriage again with Proposition 8, I won’t let it destroy us… But now, after our special day… I’m scared. I’m scared they’ll take it away from us. I didn’t think it would feel any different, being married. It’s only a ceremony, right? But now I’m Leila Farrell, and it does feel different to being Leila Thomas. I can’t even explain it…”
“I know,” Ashley said, “It’s nice, this feeling of certainty, that we’ll always be there for each other, that the state recognizes that we want to spend our whole lives together. But regardless, I’ll always be yours. We don’t need a piece of paper or an official record to prove that…”
“It’s just… when I saw those protesters… It made me think about how delicate this whole thing is… How our dreams can be shattered by one vote. How will I feel about the rest of the world if this thing passes? Will I walk down the street, wondering if the people I meet voted for or against our marriage? Will I treat them differently if I find out they gave money to the yes campaign?”
“Did we make a mistake?” Ashley said, “We talked about this…”
“No,” Leila said, “We had to take this opportunity. It may be the only chance in our lifetimes that we have to be married, unless we move to Massachusetts or Connecticut. Even then… nothing is certain. Sometimes I feel like our enemies are everywhere.”
“But so are our friends,” Ashley said, stroking Leila’s long brown hair, “Never forget that.”
Leila shifted nervously as they waited in line to vote. Ashley put her hand on her shoulder, “Don’t,” she whispered, knowing that Leila was scanning the crowd, wondering in fear who would support them and who would not. “What will be, will be.”
Leila nodded as she reached the front of the line. She went to the voting machine, cast her vote, and so did Ashley.
“A new president, our future… So much hinges on the choices everybody makes today…” Leila mused as they left.
They sat in the local bar that evening, watching as states turned blue. A roar of joy rose from the crowd as the news station announced that Obama was going to be the next president of the United States. The crowd spilled out onto the streets, and Leila hugged Ashley tightly. Ashley was still looking at the screen, as the first results for Proposition 8 were displayed in the bottom corner. It was close, and not in their favor, but there were still lots of precincts to be counted. Nothing was set in stone. Still, she had a bad feeling…
Leila didn’t see as Ashley distracted her with a deep kiss, and let herself celebrate their new president. There would be time for fear and mourning later, if it came to that…
They could hear jubilation on the streets, and left the bar to revel in the warm company of friends and allies. Gay pride flags mingled with Obama banners as the crowds cheered. A large outside screen attracted a crowd as they prepared to hear Obama’s victory speech and McCain’s concession. The crowd was in a carnival mood, but Ashley felt uncertainty eating away at her even as she felt joy rising in her. It was so bittersweet that she felt tears welling up inside, but she knew that anybody looking at her would only think she was happy, because it almost seemed as though everybody had forgotten about Proposition 8, even if only for a second.
The victory speech came and went, and the news returned to talking about Proposition 8. Ashley wanted to take Leila’s hand and run far away from it all, but she knew she could not shield her wife from the truth. How could she, when all around them, disappointment was starting to well up in the crowd? Banners started to be abandoned, and many in the crowd slipped away. A blanket of quiet and unease muted the rest, the cheering and party atmosphere gone.
Leila saw the figures and stood as if frozen to the spot. Ashley put her hands on Leila’s shoulders.
“Hon, not all the results are in yet. It’s really close… We won’t know for sure until the morning…”
“We know,” Leila said, “Even though there could be a chance of victory, somewhere inside us we know how it’s going to be…” Tears welled up in her eyes, “Perhaps we’ve known all along and we’ve just been fooling ourselves. Damn it!” She burst into tears and Ashley held her.
“It’s not over yet!” Ashley soothed, “We still don’t know what they will do about our marriage… I think they’ll have a much harder time dissolving all the marriages that have already taken place… Don’t lose heart, love…”
But she knew Leila had already lost hope. She felt her fragile form in her arms, and she had never seemed so small, so thin and defeated.
“Let’s go home, Leila,” Ashley said softly, “You need to rest…”
As they walked home, Ashley felt conflict in her heart. The jubilation at Obama’s win mingled with the crushing sorrow at Proposition 8’s passing, making her a walking paradox, the very definition of bittersweet.
When they got home, Ashley tucked Leila into bed, but she could not sleep herself. She lay on the sofa, watching election coverage beyond boredom as they analyzed and dissected the night’s events, then got up and paced the room. She looked in on Leila, who was soundly sleeping, and left, walking the streets as dawn broke through. She heard the sounds of celebration from some places, as she walked through abandoned streets filled with banners and fliers.
Looking out onto the bay, she heard the soothing sound of the water sloshing below her as she watched the sun come up.
“Where do we go from here?” she whispered to herself, tired and emotional, and there she let it all out, crying to herself with only the newborn sun as her witness.
When Ashley returned home, Leila was dressed for work. She had an intense look on her face which Ashley had never seen before.
“Are you okay, hon?” Ashley said, “Are you sure you want to go in today?”
“Yeah,” Leila said, in a strangely flat tone, “I’ll be fine.”
Ashley wasted the day around the house, almost in a daze. So many conflicting emotions filled her, but she knew she would be all right. She could take it, but she worried for Leila. When she was late home, Ashley started to worry. She picked up the phone and called Leila’s cellphone, but received no response. Evening turned to night and Ashley grew frantic.
Finally there was a knock at the door, and Ashley flew to the door, tearing it open in fear.
One of their male friends stood there, propping up a drunk Leila.
“I saw her in the bar, drowning her sorrows and making angry slurs, so I figured I’d bring her home before she started a fight.”
“Thanks, Adam. Geez Leila, what have you done to yourself? Don’t let them get to you like this!” She took Leila into her arms and carried her to bed.
“They… they hate us! I can’t take it! All those assholes… they want to deny us rights!”
“Leila, sleep,” Ashley said, “We’ll talk in the morning, okay?”
When she woke, Leila was gone and daylight streamed in. Ashley searched the house, but Leila was nowhere to be found. She called her job to find that Leila had called out sick. Getting in her car, she started to trawl the local bars, looking for her wife, becoming more and more anxious. She turned the radio on to calm her nerves.
“..and now we have a bizarre and sad story of an arrest this afternoon. A woman threw eggs at a gospel church, yelling racial slurs. Before her arrest, she spoke to the media, saying that African-Americans expected civil rights, but had voted against hers.”
“Leila…” Ashley sighed, “Why did you let it come to this?”
Leila sat across the table from her in a private interview room. The police officer had been kind when Ashley had explained the situation, and had told her that the church and individuals had decided not to press charges.
“Leila, why?” Ashley said, “This isn’t like you! I know you’re hurting, but you can’t run around blaming African-Americans for what happened.”
“They were the ones who voted against us!” Leila argued, “The news showed the figures. Overwhelmingly, black and Latino people swayed the “Yes” vote. They’re to blame for all this! You think they would understand!”
“No, Leila,” Ashley said, “People in general are to blame for all this. People from every age, color and creed… across the board made up that fifty-two percent. They also made up the people who voted for us. So exit polls say that African-Americans voted seventy percent to ban gay marriage, that still means thirty percent voted for us. It’s easy to look at everything in numbers and take that to mean that everybody hates us, but it’s not true!”
Leila started to cry, and Ashley reached across the table and put her hand on Leila’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze, “Leila, they can take away our marriage, but they can’t take away my love for you. Not ever.”
“I’ve let everybody down,” Leila sobbed, “I was so afraid that I was going to lose everything… lose you. I was so afraid and hurt… that when I saw the news, I couldn’t control myself.” Her head slumped on the metal table, and Ashley stroked her hair.
“If I had known that getting married would do this to you, I never would have proposed, Leila,” Ashley said, “Of course our rights matter to me, but you matter more. I never meant to hurt you like this…”
“How are you so strong, Ashley?” Leila asked.
“I’m not,” Ashley said, “I cried like everybody else, and hurt deep inside. It pains me to think that people voted against our right to marry, but I understand they all had their reasons. They’re afraid of what they don’t know, of what they don’t understand. That fear is bolstered by campaigns that claim that gay marriage will be taught to kindergartners. We know that all we want is to be married in peace, but they don’t know that.”
“So where do we go from here? Leila said, “Is it hopeless?”
“Not at all,” Ashley said, “I don’t know all the answers, but I think the main one is time. We just have to continue being ourselves, being out and around. I think that as people see how ordinary we are, as they come to know us as their friends and coworkers, they’ll begin to understand that we have no shadowy intentions, that we’re not perverts, but ordinary people. The hard part is, we have to be patient. It might take forty, fifty years. Look how long it took for America to elect a black president, but it happened. I hope we live to see a gay president, but we’re not going to get anywhere by egging black churches and shouting at Mormons. Fear will just make them retreat deeper away from us.”
“I’m sorry,” Leila said, “I’ve messed everything up. I hope you can forgive me…”
“I will always forgive you, Leila,” Ashley said, “I know this isn’t how you are. You just need to convince the rest of the world of that.”
As their car pulled up outside the church, Leila looked to Ashley for support.
“You can do this,” Ashley said, kissing Leila on the cheek, “I believe in you.”
Leila got out of the car and lingered nervously on the sidewalk. Some volunteers who were cleaning up the eggs and toilet paper eyed her nervously, but she lowered her head, thinking sadly that Ashley was right, that she had earned this distrust for herself and all her people.
She stepped forward, her head lowered, and opened the doors to the church. Inside a rich red carpet and a huge mat that said WELCOME greeted her. She started to feel sad at what she had done in her sorrow and rage.
The church was quiet and the lights were on low. The pastor stood with his back to her, lighting candles. Leila nervously cleared her throat as she walked down the aisle, and the pastor turned to look at her.
“Why are you here?” he asked, not in an accusing tone, but softly, directly.
“I came to apologize,” Leila said, “I’m so sorry for what I did! I was so angry and sad at the passage of Proposition 8 that I lashed out at the group that I thought responsible. I made a mistake.”
“Exit polls said that seventy percent of us voted for Prop 8,” the pastor said, “I suppose that made you angry at us.”
Leila nodded, “It’s no excuse for what I did. There are many reasons for why people vote the way they do.”
“Indeed,” the pastor said, “See those people out there, cleaning up? They may have voted for or against, but either way they were attacked. You only did harm to your cause today.”
“I know,” Leila said, “That’s why I want to clean this mess up. Let those people go home. I’ll get started right away.”
“By the way,” the pastor said, “I voted against Prop 8, just for the record. I can’t tell my parishioners what to do, but I hope I preach love and tolerance for all people in this church. Just remember that you can’t assume anything about people. There’s stereotypes for everybody, but few of them are true when it comes down to the individual. See us as individual people, not as a group, and we’ll try to do the same for you.”
Leila nodded, “I’ll remember that, pastor. Thank you.” She walked along the aisle and stepped outside, where a wet sponge hit her in the face. Wiping the soap from her eyes and face, she saw Ashley laughing with a group of her friends as they cleaned the walls of the church.
“Come on,” Ashley said, with a smile on her face, “Are you coming to help, or not?”
As Leila took the sponge in her hand, she realized that she was lucky to have Ashley, and that nothing could take that away from her.