Couple sees DOMA as victory
By Kim Walter
Holly and Tonja Hewlett sat on the front porch of their home Thursday afternoon, watching the rain and taking advantage of the cool air that came with it.
Tucked away, yet less than two miles from James Wood High School, the married couple is content with their location and ability to raise animals and hold friendly gatherings at their historic stone cottage.
As happy as the women — both in their 40s – are with their surroundings, they remember that things haven’t always been so easy.
Holly, a consultant with Ambit Energy, remembers a Cleveland equality march in the 1980s, during which bystanders chucked bottles and anything else they could find. She remembers the beatings, the court cases and the fear that often came with being a homosexual.
With those thoughts swirling in her head, Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision to invalidate a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act was a huge victory.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said, glancing over at her wife. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Holly and Tonja met six years ago through a connection on Match.com. (They said eHarmony didn’t allow for homosexual users.)
They had backgrounds that were complete opposites of each other. Holly has been “out and proud” for years, though she tried dating a variety of men, just to be sure.
Her parents, who divorced years ago, took the news of Holly’s sexual orientation differently.
“My mom was always my biggest fan. She was a devout Christian, but she realized that nowhere in the Bible does it say that she shouldn’t love me because of this,” she said.
On the other hand, Holly said her father is “very Republican and very conservative.” He never liked any of her girlfriends, and was convinced that his daughter was simply a “lost puppy.”
Tonja never considered the possibility that she might be gay. It was never discussed during her childhood in a small-town religious home. She grew up doing what was taught to be “normal.”
Looking back, she realizes why many of her heterosexual relationships never worked out — one of those being a marriage. Tonja and her ex-husband had a daughter, Carolyn (now 11) and when the divorce came, Tonja was suddenly being taken to court.
“He just kept saying that I was a bad parent because I’m gay,” she said. “But, here I am paying child support, covering insurance for my daughter and his son … doing everything a good parent does.”
Tonja said her ex-husband would take her to court every year for the same reason. Finally, several years ago, a Warren County judge gave a statement that brought relief.
“He said, ‘Homosexuality is not a factor in this case,'” she said. “And it shouldn’t be.”
When Tonja came across Holly’s profile on the dating website, she figured it was worth a shot. She said that even if it didn’t work out romantically with her, Holly seemed like a great friend to have.
“She knows who she is. She’s done her research. She’s really helped me get comfortable with all this,” Tonja said.
This weekend the couple will celebrate six years together, and three years of marriage in November. They held a marriage ceremony with friends and family in the Shenandoah Valley before heading to a small town in Vermont to be legally married.
“In my eyes, it’s a marriage,” Holly said. “Not gay, not straight, not black, not purple … whatever. Can’t we just call it marriage now?”
Upon hearing of the decision Wednesday morning, Tonja calmly woke Holly to tell her the news.
“I think I broke down into tears for a good 10 minutes,” Holly said. “I’ve been fighting this fight for 30-some years.”
The couple considers themselves lucky. Because Tonja is a federal employee with the postal service, the couple will feel some positive impacts from the decision.
Tonja now can add Holly to her health and life insurance plans, and the couple can file federal taxes together. However, state regulated social security and Medicaid are still out of their control, since Virginia does not recognize their marriage.
“I love the state, but I hate the laws,” Holly said.
The couple takes exception to Ken Cuccinelli’s statement on the Supreme Court decision, which suggested that the vote didn’t impact the state, and that Virginia would continue to stand with its morals and the “traditional definition” of marriage being between a man and a woman.
Holly and Tonja both insist that personal morals have no place in government. Most arguments the couple hears against gay marriage are faith-based, saying that it goes against religion.
“The thing is, marriage is a government thing,” Tonja said. “Yeah, you can go to a church to get married, but the church has to go to the state for that license, and that goes for everyone.”
Both are firm believers in respecting others’ opinions. Tonja said she doesn’t think churches should be forced to marry gay couples, and Holly never forces her lifestyle or voting preference on someone who disagrees.
“If you want to have rights and be respected, you gotta respect everyone, and part of that is letting people have their own opinions,” she said. “But saying you’re standing on moral ground is [bull] … Morals are personal, and you’re a public servant. You are responsible for every citizen in your district, your state .. so whose morals are you even talking about?”
Holly said she finds Virginia’s history interesting, especially the origin of its slogan, “Virginia is for lovers.” She said the phrase came about because anyone who couldn’t get married elsewhere — 13-year-olds, first cousins or mixed couples – could do it here.
The irony puzzles Holly, especially because, in her view, the country has swung back around to the religious persecution the founding fathers fought to escape.
Holly and Tonja know they have options, but are planning to stay in Virginia until Carolyn has finished school, given that the state’s view of their marriage hasn’t changed.
Holly admitted that she remains here solely for her wife and daughter, but said she feels like the homosexual community is reaching the tipping point.
“The gays have a lot more choices now. We could pick up and move to Maryland or Delaware and still be close enough to commute to D.C. and see our daughter,” she said.
From an economic standpoint, the couple feels Virginia is losing out on all kinds of revenue.
“You know, they want us to live here, pay for education, go shopping and be upstanding citizens, but then say our marriage isn’t as real as everyone else’s?” Holly said.
Both are members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Shenandoah Valley, where Tonja leads the youth group. They encourage residents to vote come election season, and participate with charities like Habitat for Humanity.
“On the surface, I bet anyone would say we are damn good citizens,” Holly said.
When Tonja came out at work, she said there was one employee who made a few snide remarks, but most were surprised and accepting.
“They knew me as a person,” she said. “What did it matter to them who I love?”
She said the younger generation especially doesn’t seem to care much when it comes to sexuality, and it represents an overall shift in the attitude toward people like her and her wife.
“It’s about what’s between your ears, and having the passion to follow your heart that’s important,” Holly said. “Not what’s between your legs or who you slept with last night.”
The couple tries to raise Carolyn with an open mind, and usually trace life lessons back to the golden rule. Holly said when Carolyn gets frustrated with someone, or has her feelings hurt, she’ll ask her how it felt, and if it would be right for someone else to feel that way.
“Fairness is an easy way to live your life,” Holly said. “The only thing bigotry and hatred does, is result in the loss of human potential.”
Even though the women said they feel Wednesday’s vote marked a step forward for the gay community, they don’t plan to be complacent.
Tonja looks at part of DOMA’s defeat as the beginning of a ripple effect. She and Holly see other states joining with California and others to recognize gay marriages as legal in the future. But, they aren’t sure where Virginia will fall in the movement.
Holly said that now is the time for people to vocalize their desire for equal treatment — and that includes members of the gay community. She suggested that sitting in silence is the same as condoning hatred.
To her, it’s a civil rights, not a gay, issue. She said other issues suppressing minorities or women still concern her.
“This fight is not over,” she said. “I am so happy with how far we’ve come, but we can’t settle.”
“Celebrate, take a breath, put on your boots, and let’s turn around and help someone else.”
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or email@example.com