When U.S. District Judge John E. Jones’s May 20 ruling overturned Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage, making it legal for members of the LGBT community to marry in the Commonwealth, some of the loudest cheers came from Penn Law School.
“It feels great to feel equal in my own state, where I’ve been living, paying taxes, and raising a family,” says Fernando Chang-Muy, a Penn Law lecturer.
Chang-Muy and his partner, Len Rieser, also a Penn Law lecturer, are among the 23 plaintiffs in Whitewood v. Wolf, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), volunteer counsel from the law firm of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller, and Seth Kreimer, the Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor of Law at Penn Law, that challenged Pennsylvania’s 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which banned gay marriages and the recognition of gay marriages performed in other states where it is legal.
Together for more than three decades, Chang-Muy and Rieser had to overcome more than the usual difficulties when they adopted their daughter, Isabel, in 1993. First, Rieser filed papers to adopt their daughter. Then, a year later, Chang-Muy had to go through the process, as well.
In 2004, the couple entered into a civil union in Vermont. Due to Jones’ ruling and Governor Tom Corbett’s decision not to challenge it, Chang-Muy and Rieser can now marry in Pennsylvania.
“Functionally, it doesn’t change anything because we’ve been living as a family for 33 years,” says Chang-Muy. “We still cook. We still shop. We still do laundry. But, now the state and federal government recognizes it.”
Rieser says he is "happy that we can be on the same footing as any other couple that has a long-term, permanent relationship.”
The couple became plaintiffs in the case after Kreimer informed them that he was working with the ACLU. Four Penn Law alums also worked on the case.
“I think the opposition to equality is crumbling, and people are realizing that keeping loving couples from forming families is in no one’s interest,” says Kreimer.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia currently allow same-sex marriage.
Kreimer says the ruling is “an important step towards the framework that will confront the Supreme Court” when a case from one of the states reaches the nation’s highest court.
The ruling is significant to same-sex couples who want to get married, but Rieser believes it will also have a tremendous impact on future generations.
“I think anything that we can do to convey to young people that they can have the same kinds of lives as everyone else is very important,” he says.