Unfortunately, discrimination is alive and well in the State of Tennessee. Since our home state of Tennessee does not recognize same-gender marriage, my fiancée and I traveled to Massachusetts where we were legally married on October 18, 2013.
After returning home to Tennessee and receiving our certified marriage license, we went about changing our name on our legal documents. We made a list by priority, so naturally our first identification update was our Social Security card. According to our federal government this is “the” official document by which all legal United States citizens are identified for life, for everything that makes up a life. You cannot obtain a passport or open a bank account without one. You cannot obtain a mortgage or any other loan or form of credit without one. When you buy a car, apply for insurance, or are admitted to the hospital, your “identifier” is required. It’s the first official identification you are assigned after birth before you even know you need one to exist as a legal citizen in this great country of ours. The same country my US Army veteran spouse served and agreed to lay her life down for.
So we went into the office together and the change was processed without a glitch. We received our new cards in the mail a short week later. We opened the envelopes in excitement—at last we felt validated and equal in the eyes of our government and we paused to soak it all in! When we met 22 years ago, we’d never thought this possible in our lifetime, but it was real—our Social Security card, our legal identifier—said so! After that my spouse reported her marriage to her federal employer and her last name and marital status were immediately changed. I was listed as her legal spouse and my children as her legal stepchildren.
Next on the list to update was my driver’s license, and coincidently I received a renewal notice in the mail a few weeks after my marriage—“great timing!” I thought. On the back of the renewal form was a notice stating applicants MUST have a social security number existing in the database and the name must match. Knowing my name was already updated on my Social Security card, I assumed I was good to go.
I walked into my local DMV and presented my renewal notice. I announced to the clerk that I also had a name change and had already changed it on my Social Security card, which I presented. She stated they did not accept a Social Security card as proof of name change, so I handed her my certified marriage certificate. She processed my renewal and name change. She handed me a temporary printout with my new name to use in the interim. About a week later I received my new license in the mail. Again, an overwhelming feeling of validation!
About a week later my spouse walked into that same DMV office. She presented her Social Security card and certified marriage certificate. After the clerk perused the marriage certificate she asked my spouse outright if this was a same-sex marriage. My spouse said it was. The clerk told her she was sorry, but the State of Tennessee did not recognize our marriage and she would not be able to process her name change. She was denied. The clerk offered the suggestion of visiting the county court house to petition for a name change, which would cost about $175.
My spouse informed the clerk that she didn’t understand. Wondered how I had no problem changing mine. The clerk then copied the marriage certificate and attempted to look up my information, but could not locate it. The clerk then went to talk to a supervisor and returned to ask if I was with her. My spouse said no. The supervisor walked up and told my spouse my license would be revoked and I would have to come in and forfeit it because I was now in possession of an “illegally issued identification”—an identification they processed and issued.
Based on the legality of that statement my spouse asked if I would receive an official notice by letter informing me of the revocation beforehand. The clerk said no, but if I didn’t voluntarily return it a State Trooper would be sent to our home to retrieve it. My spouse did not know if this was simply a threat or if something was put into the system flagging my license as “illegally issued”.
My spouse called me on the way home to deliver the bad news. I was beside myself—how could this happen? A precedent was set when mine was approved–why was it different for her? I don’t understand how a state governed by the federal government can deny a legal name change regardless of “why” it was changed. I was perplexed how a request by the state to revoke my license could be made to just “pass along” from one person to another—a person the state did not recognize as my spouse. What about my right to due process? How is this legal?
And just like that, all that joy of validation was swept out from under us. We were immediately sent back to that place where once again we felt like second class citizens. My spouse was good enough to potentially die for every person in Tennessee, but in the eyes of Tennessee she is not equal to those same citizens she vowed to protect. This inequality needs to change and we are willing to stand up to help make that happen. All Americans should be afforded the same rights, especially those veteran and active duty military who have, and continue to fight to defend those very rights.