Paul Hard and Charles David Fancher got married on a Cape Cod beach in May 2011. They wore white suits with boutonnieres made of yellow roses, and drank three times from a cup engraved with a quote from the Song of Solomon: "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."
They went to the office of the town clerk in Provincetown, Mass., to get their marriage certificate, and displayed the prized document on their mantel back home in Alabama. But when the unimaginable happened, none of that mattered.
Alabama, like most of the South, does not allow same-sex couples to marry, nor does it recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where it is legal. So when Fancher died in a car crash, less than three months after the wedding, Hard's grief was compounded by a bureaucratic nightmare. In a lawsuit filed in federal court late last year and announced on Thursday by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Paul argues that the state's laws prohibiting the recognition of his marriage violate his constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
"It just feels like people are trying to erase what was between David and I," Hard said on the phone this week. "Like it was a non-marriage; it was nothing."
The day of Fancher's death, Aug. 1, 2011, began like any other: Fancher rose before dawn and kissed Hard before heading to his job as a director of information technology for a company in Birmingham, Ala. About an hour later, Hard received a call from a nearby hospital. Fancher had been in an accident. Hard grabbed a folder with their marriage license and other important documents, and rushed out the door.
When he arrived, a nurse behind the counter told him that he couldn't see his husband. "I recognized that this was not somebody who intended to be cruel," Hard recalled. "She was kind of horrified, and she said, 'We don't recognize gay marriage here.'"
No one would tell Hard what had happened or describe Fancher's condition, but after half an hour or so, an attendant agreed to take Hard to see him. On the way to his room, Hard asked if Fancher was badly hurt. "Well, he's dead," the attendant told him. Hard's knees gave out. He reached for the attendant, but the attendant stepped away and he fell.
Over the next few days, he made arrangements for Fancher's burial. "I went into business mode, this thing of how you start taking care of the business of death," Hard said.
But the state's marriage ban made that business complicated. At the funeral home, when the director handed him Fancher's death certificate, Hard felt like he'd been stuck with a knife, he said. The document said Fancher was "never married."
"I begged them to change it, to take it off the form, but they wouldn't," he said.
What ultimately drove Hard to sue the state was a dispute over a separate lawsuit. Hard had filed a complaint against the trucking company and drivers involved in Fancher's fatal accident. Even though Fancher's will names Hard as his sole beneficiary, Alabama's state laws bar him from collecting any proceeds from the suit.
"I was bothered really by the injustice of this whole situation. I was David's husband enough to bury him and pay for the funeral. I was David's husband enough to settle his estate, to pay the bills that were left to both of us, but I wasn't his husband in any other regard as far as the laws of Alabama concerned," Hard said. "I had all of the responsibilities, but I have none of the rights that are due me as a spouse."
Since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, dozens of gays and lesbians around the country have taken similar stands. The momentum has not been confined to liberal parts of the country. In the last two months, judges in conservative states like Oklahoma, Utah and Kentucky, have sided with plaintiffs arguing that their constitutional rights are violated by state marriage bans.
But Hard is the first to take a stand like this in Alabama, where historically courts have not been favorable to gays and lesbians. The chief of the state's Supreme Court, Roy Moore, famously suggested in an opinion on a same-sex parent adoption case that gays and lesbians should be executed rather than allowed to raise children. Last week, Moore launched a personal campaign urging the governors of every state to pass a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
"Alabama is so virulently homophobic in its public posturing," said David Dinielli, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is based in Montgomery. "Our project is really dedicated to making certain that steps forward in places like New York and San Francisco find their way down to the South at some point."
"To be honest," Dinielli continued. "We're getting anxious."
Gay rights advocates in the state are hopeful that Hard's suit will invigorate their movement. "The thing I keep seeing over and over again on social media or emails from volunteers, is 'When is Alabama going to do something? When's it going to be our turn?'" said Michael Hansen, who works with Equality Alabama, a gay rights group. "Alabamans are really tired of being last or next to last in everything."
Hard hopes that when people in the state learn about his story, they will see that this is "not about politics."
For the most part, he said, his fellow Alabamans were warm and supportive of his relationship with Fancher.
When Fancher proposed in a tapas restaurant in downtown Montgomery, the chef provided a dessert on the house and the waitstaff all congratulated them as they left. The school where Hard teaches threw the couple an engagement party, and his colleagues came to the emergency room and later, to the funeral. Around 300 people signed Fancher's death book.
"People who were very conservative, folks from all walks of life," Hard said. "I've long found, politics aside, that Southerners are very heartfelt people."