In my heart, I’ll never be anything but a Virginian. I’ve spent my entire adult life here; I can recite arcane points of the state’s history; I once even helped draw the lines of our state senate districts. I’ve collected a ridiculous assortment of maps and cufflinks, rocks glasses and ties with our state seal emblazoned on them. I love this state so much that I even married a Virginia native.
But this month, I’ll be moving across the river to Washington, D.C., walking away from the state I grew up in. It’s not that I don’t still love the commonwealth. It’s that I finally realized that the commonwealth isn’t a whole lot in love with me.
I’ve lived through the banning of same-sex marriage in Virginia. I was in the fight against the marriage amendment that was added to our state’s constitution in 2006. I’ve heard delegates and state senators say that discrimination in hiring doesn’t exist and then watched them vote against a judge solely because he or she is gay. But these things didn’t really hit home until last year, when my husband and I decided to get married—and had to cross state lines just to get a valid marriage license.
Our nation has changed significantly in the last 10 years. We’ve all seen the polling numbers, the statements put out by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the great pictures of newly married couples celebrating in places like Des Moines, Iowa, Albuquerque, N.M., and Dover, Del. The Virginia House of Delegates, meanwhile, just voted down a bill that would have allowed second-parent adoptions, because they don’t want gay couples to be able to legally adopt children. Gay couples like us.
This isn’t to say that we haven’t seen steps toward progress. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine both support gay marriage and anti-discrimination laws, as do our newly elected governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. One of Attorney General Mark Herring’s first acts in his new office was to decline to defend the marriage amendment in court, instead choosing to join the legal team suing clerks of court who have denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
When we first decided to get married, my husband and I wanted to have the ceremony here in Virginia—this is is our home, after all. We even went to our local clerk of court with the slim hope that he just might grant us a marriage license. Not surprisingly, we were turned down.
After the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, we changed our minds about where we wanted the marriage to be held. If we couldn’t get married in Hampton, where my husband was born and raised, or Richmond, where he went to college and I worked for years in the General Assembly, or Alexandria, the little city we decided was going to be our home, did it really matter where we had our ceremony?
If Virginia didn’t want anything to do with us, while D.C. could give us a federally recognized marriage certificate, why wouldn’t we cross the Potomac to get married there? For that matter, why couldn’t we live there?
Our marriage wouldn’t mean anything in Virginia. What’s worse, because then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli needed to twist the knife a bit before leaving his post, the Virginia Department of Taxation was told not to conform to the IRS’s tax treatment of same-sex married couples, making us file jointly on the federal level and then separately on the state level.
The thought of living in D.C. wasn’t one I’d previously entertained. I’d worked and volunteered for far too many candidates and been part of far too many LGBT rights groups for me to leave Virginia. I’d invested too much of my life to walk away. Yet walk away is exactly what I’m doing now. Virginia will inevitably join other states in allowing same sex marriages some day—but I’m no longer willing to wait for that day to come. I love my husband too much to let my state tell me he’s nothing more than a legal stranger.
I can’t, of course, completely abandon my home. I’ll continue to help out groups whose mission is to advance equality in Virginia, and I’ll support candidates who fight to pass LGBTQ-friendly legislation. We’ll keep visiting our families down in Southeastern Virginia.
I love my commonwealth, and I always will. I just don’t have to live there anymore.
Sean Holihan is a political consultant who has spent the last 10 years working on progressive issues in Virginia.