BY CAROLINE SELLE – In 2012, Maryland became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage through popular vote. Decades earlier in 1973, the state was the first to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in its code of law.
Hyattsville resident Jessica Port played a role in the establishment of equal rights for same-sex couples, though her fight was not exactly about marriage. In 2010, she began the first steps in what would become a two-year fight to win the right to divorce.
When Port and her then-wife, Virginia Cowan, began the process of separation, “Things were really amicable,” said Port. “We had no joint property, no children, so we had nothing to contest.” Port was a little concerned because the couple was married in California, where same-sex marriage was legal, but she was assured by the free legal clinic at the Prince George’s County courthouse in Upper Marlboro that there should be no complications.
The couple remained separated for a year before filing for divorce, as required by Maryland law, Port said, before appearing before a judge to finalize the process. The decision wasn’t what they expected.
“[The judge] said, ‘Because of the unnatural circumstances of your marriage, you’ll have my ruling by mail,’” Port said. Two weeks later, the letter arrived. Cowan and Port’s divorce was denied on the grounds that both were female.
“If you were married out of jurisdiction, then you have no legal marriage rights in the state. … to grant a divorce you’d have to recognize that the marriage had validity,” Port said. Even though a handful of same-sex divorces had been granted in Maryland, there was no precedent-setting case.
“I had no idea what to do. … what do you do when you’re legally bound to somebody?” she said. “I owned a home in my name at this point, and I owned a car. My current partner and I were talking about if we ever wanted to get married and if we ever wanted to have kids, and what that meant.”
Port called the LGBQT rights organization LAMBDA, and lawyer Michele Davos agreed to take the case. There was some hesitation. Port’s current wife, Amanda Austin, was in the military at the time, and the couple was concerned her name would be put into the public arena. The policy “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prohibited openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people from serving in the military, was in effect and would remain so until September 20, 2011.
Ultimately, everyone decided to go ahead.
Though the case was separate from the vote for marriage, “It was precedent setting and people were really paying attention,” Port said.
In May 2012, Cowan and Port were granted their divorce in a unanimous decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals. The popular vote that legalized same-sex unions in the state would take place a few months later, in November of that year.
“Most people go through a divorce and it’s dramatic and it’s challenging and they walk away and they don’t have much to show for it. We walked away and we got to change a law and affect policy,” she said.
Over the next few months, her life returned to normal. Port had just purchased her house in Hyattsville, and she and Austin would eventually decide to get married.
Today, she has a two-year-old son.
In Hyattsville, “We found two great things,” she said. “One was that we didn’t have a need for a specifically gay community because the general community was so accepting, and that was awesome. The other is that [many families] have situations that are unconventional.”
Her parenting group has other two-mom families, and “everyone has been really open,” she said.
“It’s just kind of funny because people have this image of what gay couples look like,” Port said. “I have a super quiet, mellow, heterosexual life with the exception of my partner being a woman.”
“We have a kid; we have a dog; we have a townhouse. We have two cars, we both work full-time jobs, we both feel guilty about putting our kid in daycare. … same as any parent does, with the balancing work and a kid.”