From the moment it was built in 1936, the couple's Broad Ripple bungalow has witnessed the hottest of summers, the coldest of winters; neighbors moving in, neighbors moving out. The house's lath and plaster walls have kept secrets and absorbed sorrow from deaths, joy from births and weddings. They have heard stories of charity and stories of injustice. The new owners, Cassie Miller, 32, and Heather Mikel, 27, will spend the next several years imprinting their modest house with their own joys, sorrows, stories.
It is the pair's first home, their starter home. They closed on a recent Friday, and every piece of furniture, every stitch of clothing was in its rightful place by the following Tuesday. Miller, a team leader for a mental health center, and Mikel, an underwriter for an attorney, are like many other couples: They are anxious to begin the next phase of their journey, a journey they trust will some day include legal marriage.
Their living room's built-in bookcase is lined with freshly unpacked photographs of the pair. They are reminders that Miller and Mikel have made a long-term commitment to each other, one that includes a two-seated ride through illness, health, abundance, scarcity and possibly all that goes along with raising children. But while their commitment is every bit as tangible as any heterosexual couple's pledge, their inability to legally marry leaves Miller and Mikel devoid of the numerous and varied benefits and protections that married heterosexual couples are afforded.
To this couple, marriage is more than a ceremony and promises. Marriage is protecting themselves and one another.
"I love her to death," Miller says. "I'm always going to. For anybody else, that's the reason. But for us, it's equality. It's if something happens, and I'm about to die, who gets to decide what happens to me? I would want her to. We want access to the basic rights and protections."
Protections and benefits
There are currently 1,138 federal protections and benefits that married heterosexual couples are afforded - benefits and protections that are denied all same-sex couples in the United States, regardless of a state's recognition of same-sex marriage. So while six states have legalized same-sex marriage - New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Main and Iowa - the rights and privileges that go along with marriage do not transcend the state level. It is the 1996 federally instated Defense of Marriage Act that continues to ensure that same-sex married couples are denied those 1,138 federal protections and benefits, including Social Security survivors' benefits.
Without the ability to legally marry, Miller and Mikel are vulnerable to numerous life events that could leave one or both of them facing financial hardship. Because they live in Indiana, and not in one of the five states that have legalized same-sex marriage, hospital visitation rights, along with many other heterosexual spousal rights, are nonexistent without the assistance of legal documentation. In Indiana, doctors can only consult people related to you by blood, adoption or marriage unless you have an advanced directive.
And while Miller and Mikel take advantage of their respective employers' health benefits, they realize there could come a time when one of them needs to depend on the other's domestic partner health care benefits. This means a heavier tax burden on the person who carries the insurance. Despite an employer's best intentions of extending domestic partner benefits to its gay and lesbian employees, those taking advantage of them are taxed on the employer's contribution.
Miller and Mikel once considered moving to a state where same-sex marriage is legal. As Indiana natives, though, they decided to stay put.
"We've talked about it a lot," Miller says, "but we have so many ties here that we just don't want to leave."
So they are hunkering down and feeling that - with the recent presidential election and more states jumping on the same-sex marriage bandwagon - the tide is beginning to change, that the country is warming to the idea that same-sex couples have the right to the same protections and benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. Miller and Mikel feel that, eventually, marriage equality will find its way to Indiana. And to many gay and lesbian Hoosiers, it appears to be inching closer.
Righting a wrong
As of April of this year, Iowa's Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage makes the prospect of the equivalent in Indiana a little more real. "I was excited," Mikel says. "I think that's hope for our little state." What only seemed possible in states along the East and West Coasts now seems viable given that Iowa, like Indiana, is located in the Midwest, and like Indiana, Iowa is mostly rural. "I know that they're a little more liberal than our state is," Mikel continues, "but it's here. It's closer."
Could Iowa's decision mean that other Midwestern states like Indiana are closer to legalizing same-sex marriage? While attempts to amend the state Constitution in order to define marriage between a man and a woman have been thwarted, there are currently no efforts underway to legalize same-sex marriage here. Indiana Equality, the state's foremost organization relative to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, will not likely be leading the charge on the marriage equality front. The organization's mission statement clearly outlines a more defensive approach, one that encompasses keeping attempts to define marriage as between a man and a woman at bay.
Walter Botich, president of Indiana Equality Action, the lobbying arm of Indiana Equality, says there is a hierarchy relative to securing rights and protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers, and marriage equality is not at the top of that hierarchy.
"We want to be sure that we don't put the proverbial cart before the horse," he says. "Security for LGBT Hoosiers in regard to employment, public accommodations and housing is a No. 1 priority." He adds that "While there is considerable national attention being placed on marriage equality, in Indiana you can still be fired from your job or denied housing for being a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered person."
Botich also cites Indiana's lack of bias crimes protections as a reason to place the pursuit of marriage equality on a back burner. Indeed, Indiana is one of only fives states that have no statutes addressing hate or bias crimes. The other four states are Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Wyoming.
Like other Hoosier gay and lesbian couples, Miller and Mikel feel their hopes wax when yet another state legalizes gay marriage, but then wane with stories like California's Supreme Court decision to uphold Proposition 8, the ballot initiative where a majority of voters stripped same-sex couples of their right to marry.
"It does cause us to be less hopeful for the future of marriage in conservative states such as in our good old state of Indiana," Miller says.
The couple plans to enjoy their house and perhaps start a family there. One day, when they feel it is time to move on, they will leave their little bungalow with stories of inequity, stories of hope and quite possibly a story about how a state, or even an entire nation, righted a wrong.