Meet Two Couples Suing To Make Same-Sex Marriage Legal In Idaho

Apr 9, 2014

Gay marriage, couples, lawsuit
Amber and Rachael filed their lawsuit against Idaho in Nov. 2013. Their lawyer Deborah Ferguson looks on as we talk at their Boise home.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Amber Beierle and Rachael Robertson have been together for three years. Within the last six months they've become the public face of an effort to strike down Idaho's constitutional ban on gay marriage. At home, they're like many other couples playing with their dogs on the back patio.

“Charlie's the corgi,” Amber says. “Then we’ve got the Labradoodle Boozer. And Georgia is the basset hound.” Add in Herman, the big orange cat, and that’s their family -- so far. The two have planned on having kids ever since they got together more than three years ago.

“That was part of the deal from the start,” Amber says. “We both wanted a family and we set out to find somebody who wanted the same thing.”

About half of U.S states have seen lawsuits filed against same-sex marriage bans since the Supreme Court struck down California’s last year. Those include Idaho and four of its neighboring states. In December, a judge in Utah declared that state’s ban unconstitutional. Thursday, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals takes it up. The four couples suing Idaho are watching that Utah case intently. Their case will go before a judge next month.

Ideally, Amber and Rachael would like to get married before they have kids. But they don’t know how long their court case could take, so they won’t necessarily wait.  

Amber and Rachael have been the de-facto spokespeople since Idaho's lawsuit was filed last November. They’ve done the interviews and had their pictures in the paper. Rachael is not all that comfortable in the spotlight, but sitting in their living room she says the public reaction has been almost entirely positive.

“People asking if they can help, or people wanting updates,” Rachael says. “People will wave at us or, you know, drive by and honk and give the thumbs up.”

So far, being involved in this case has been a great experience Amber says. But it’s not always easy.

“I don’t know if I’m a mouthpiece of every gay and lesbian couple in Idaho, but certainly we’re aware that we can be perceived that way,” Amber says. “And that awareness, at times, I think it’s OK to say that that can be a little exhausting.”

Amber and Rachael along with three other couples are challenging an amendment to Idaho’s Constitution voters passed in 2006. It defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Idaho’s governor and attorney general have vowed to defend the law in court.

Lori and Sharene Watsen are one of four couples suing the state of Idaho to legalize same-sex marriage. The Watsens are legally married in New York.
Lori and Sharene Watsen are one of four couples suing the state of Idaho to legalize same-sex marriage. The Watsens are legally married in New York.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Initially, the other couples let Amber and Rachael do the talking for them. That includes Lori and Sharene Watsen. Lori says she and Sharene were afraid to be public figures.

“We did have some moments wondering if we would be subject to violence or just ugliness,” Lori says. “But we have not had even an ounce of that. It’s been exactly the opposite. It’s just been astounding.”  

That positive feedback has made the Watsens more comfortable. This is the first time they’ve spoken publicly about the case.

Lori and Sharene have a son who’s almost a year old. They take turns holding him as they talk. When he starts to get restless a change of lap settles him down. The two have been together for five years, and in 2011 took a trip to New York and got married in Central Park. More than a third of states recognize the Watsens’ marriage, but not their home state.

“We have our marriage license from New York but it doesn’t hold any weight here in Idaho,” Lori says.

There are a lot of reasons the Watsens joined this lawsuit. Perhaps most importantly, Sharene says, they want the legal protections that come with marriage.

“We’re not asking for anything special,” Sharene says. “We’re just asking for basic rights that the majority of people can have if they choose to get married. And people don’t realize how many rights come with marriage.”

Here’s one example. Sharene is their son’s biological mother and Lori’s petition to adopt him was turned down by the state. That means Lori can’t take him to the doctor without a special document called a medical power of attorney. It’s only good for six months, so twice a year they have to fill out new paperwork and have it notarized. Lori has to keep it on hand all the time in case of emergencies.

When their son was born, Lori and Sharene wrote a note on his birth certificate form requesting both their names be included. But when the official version came in the mail it only included Sharene’s name.

“There are some people who wouldn’t consider us a family and we are,” Lori says. “We’re committed to each other. We’re not different, I mean you look around in our home you see our kid’s toys on the floor, pictures of our family up on the walls.”

Sharene says they decided to join the suit because they think they would do a good job representing Idaho’s gay couples.

“Besides the fact that we’re two women, we’re a pretty traditional family,” she says.

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio