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ST. LOUIS — When Brandi Davis heard she finally might be able to marry the love of her life, she sat in shock at her desk for half an hour.
“I finally managed to dial the phone,” she said. “And I said, ‘Kate, did you see this?’”
Marriage had never seemed like a possibility for Brandi and her now wife, Kate, though they have been together for nearly 10 years. Even if the couple from Granite City, Ill., an eastern suburb of St. Louis, went to a state that gave marriage licenses to same-sex couples, it would be little more than scrap paper in Illinois or Missouri.
“Every time a state would pass (same-sex marriage), our friends would go, ‘OK, you can go to Canada. Go over here. Go there. They have it,” Davis said. “We said, ‘You don’t understand. We still have to come back here.’”
But the U.S. Supreme Court changed all that when it struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act in June. Now at least the federal government would recognize a same-sex marriage, even if the couple lived in a state like Illinois, which hasn’t legalized gay marriage. That’s what left Brandi in shock. That’s when marriage became much more realistic for couples like her and Kate.
And that’s where Scott Emanuel and Ed Reggi come in.
The St. Louis pair organizes buses that take area couples to Iowa to tie the knot. To date, they have put together 14 trips that have taken 150 couples to get married. Emanuel and Reggi were the first. Brandi and Kate Davis were the 142nd.
Dubbed the Marriage Equality Bus, the project was born from Emanuel and Reggi’s own love story. They were surprised when the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages in that state in 2009, and the decision offered an opportunity. Iowa had become an unexpected solution to a unique problem facing LGBT couples in the Midwest.
“(Same-sex marriage) was going on on the coasts,” Emanuel said. “It didn’t seem practical, attainable — even possible.”
Suddenly, it was only a four-hour drive away, and they started making plans.
“Through that process, we found a few friends who wanted to go and get married too,” he said. “Then it expanded. Then we had more than a van.”
Emanuel and Reggi ended up chartering a bus with 16 other couples. After the first bus trip, word spread, and they haven’t stopped since.
“It’s the first time a lot of couples see their names on a document together,” Emanuel said. “That’s significant.”
For Jeannie and Jessica Heafner of Florissant, Mo., who rode the 14th bus with Brandi and Kate Davis, that’s what the trip was all about. They had a wedding with family and friends four years ago, but an Iowa marriage certificate means a different kind of recognition: a legal one.
“I get to check ‘married’ on my tax return,” Jeannie said. “I’ve never been able to do that, and we’ve been married for four years.”
The bus left St. Louis days after New Jersey became the 14th state to legalize same-sex marriage. A similar change in the Show-Me State remains unlikely. Even though the federal government now honors same-sex marriages, Missouri does not. In 2004, Missouri became one of the now 30 states to write same-sex-marriage bans into their constitutions.
“And then we lived in a state that said our relationship was not valid,” Emanuel said. “I remember what it felt like. People shut down after that. It was shut down in our hearts. It was shut down in our communities.”
Full marriage equality may be the ultimate goal for LGBT activists in Missouri, but they say there are other issues to tackle before same-sex marriage can even be considered a possibility in the state.
“Right now, we’re only starting to talk about marriage,” said Katie Stuckenschneider, communications organizer for PROMO, a Missouri LGBT advocacy organization. “We’re not there yet in Missouri. Right now we are still working on the fact that you can be fired for being lesbian, gay, transgendered, bisexual (in Missouri).”
Missouri has yet to adopt a statewide measure that would protect LGBT individuals from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, but Emanuel said the state has always moved slowly on these issues.
The so-called sodomy laws, which effectively criminalized physical intimacy between same-sex couples, were on the books in Missouri until 2003, when they were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
And it is also a misdemeanor for a judge or member of the clergy to solemnize a marriage for a same-sex couple in Missouri.
“It sends a message,” Emanuel said.
Missouri is a deeply divided state when it comes to politics, and Stuckenschneider said the conversation on LGBT issues largely follows that divide: an urban versus rural one.
Changing minds must come before legal action for organizations like PROMO operating in red states like Missouri. Of the 163 representatives in the Missouri House, 109 are Republicans, with a similar ratio (34-24) in the state Senate. St. Louis and Kansas City are among the state’s only liberal strongholds.
“We’re slowly shifting our focus to statewide efforts,” Stuckenschneider said. “It’s a state-by-state issue, and within the state, it’s a county-by-county issue. We’re really just trying to create awareness.”
Those efforts may not be falling on deaf ears. A 2012 poll by Public Policy Polling found that while barely one-third of Missouri voters are in favor of the legalization of same-sex marriage, 64 percent would accept those marriages or civil unions.
However, more and more couples are opting to make the journey to Iowa instead of waiting for neighbors to change their minds. For them, it’s too important to wait.
“It means more,” Brandi Davis said. “The rings mean more (now), because to me, they’re wedding rings.”
But with that moment of joy comes a bittersweet reminder.
“One of the things a lot of people told us is that we should not have had to (travel to Iowa),” Davis said. “It should be equal — everywhere.”
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