Until Friday, Ohio was one of the 13 states with a ban still in place to prevent gay marriage. On Friday morning, that changed when an historic Supreme Court ruling made same-sex marriage a right nationwide.
To mark this huge victory, we chatted with Tess Tessier, 59, and Tara McKibben, 66, two long-term domestic partners — 25 years together and counting! — based in Youngstown, Ohio, about what legalized same-sex unions in their Midwestern hub could mean for them.
Read on for their sweet anecdotes about how they fell in love, their families’ shifting reactions to their partnership, the challenges they’ve experienced raising a son in a swing state, and how their heartwarming relationship will (and won't) change, now that their marriage is legal.
How did you meet?
Tara McKibben: "I was a student at Youngstown State University, where Tess taught philosophy and religion. I’d asked another person at the university about where to find a good community of women. That person said, 'Why don't you go talk to Dr. Tessier?’"
Tess Tessier: "I knew Tara was 'the one' right away. I knew before I even spoke to her, when I could only see the back of her head sitting in my office, but it scared the daylights out of me because she was a student. Even though she wasn't in any of my classes, I felt there was a power issue, and I didn’t want to take advantage of her. When I told her that, she said, ‘Currently, I’m not that impressed with you,' and it was love. Our first date was at a Quaker meeting, and we’ve been together ever since."
Had you each been in relationships with women before?
TT: "Yes, I’d been out since I was 20...and I’d moved to Youngstown for that teaching position with a woman I was with for nine years. When Tara started spending time with me, the community immediately understood. We didn't have to announce anything."
TM: "I had come out to myself, but not to anyone else. There was a woman that I knew through the church. We became good friends, and I fell in love with her. When I fell for her, I knew I was gay despite having been in straight relationships until then."
How did your family and friends react to your relationship?
TT: "I had come to Youngstown from Southern California, where I’d been very politically active. It was a nightmare when I moved to Ohio. It was at least 15 years behind. Nobody was out, and the lesbian community was very fractured and dysfunctional here. The discrimination was very covert here. No one says anything to your face."
TM: "The environment I grew up in was lily-white — a very conservative community. I wouldn't have come out to my family as soon as I did, but about a year into my relationship with Tess, a mutual friend of mine and my sister’s kept telling me, ‘Your sister thinks you're gay, and she would be very understanding if you came out.’ So, I came out to my sister, and she immediately told me I couldn’t spend time alone with her kids anymore. Tess was not welcome at any family gatherings...I decided not to go to any family gatherings for several years. My brother was the only one in my immediate family who accepted our relationship. He decided if Tess wasn't included in family gatherings, he wasn't going to be either."
Have you dealt with other forms of discrimination over the years?
TT: "Tara has multiple sclerosis, and we’re in a domestic partnership. For years, they wouldn't let me buy insurance for her or put her on my plan, and there was discrimination against us at the university. Tara was not allowed to swim in the pool there because she wasn't considered a family member. I also couldn’t provide tuition remission for our son, Andrew.
"I finally did get domestic partnership benefits through a man who was close with the university’s Board of Trustees. He was a good ol' boy-type and didn't have a dog in that hunt, but he worked very hard...they passed the vote by 5-4 the day before the Defense of Marriage Act would have made it illegal. I remember some faculty members brought a lawsuit to try to force the university to give domestic partnership benefits, and they asked me to testify. When they asked me if I’d experienced discrimination, I remembered the lifeguards at the pool asking Tara to leave because she wasn't family, and I broke down.
How have you seen those kinds of negative attitudes change over the years?
TT: "Attitudes over the past five years or so seem much better, but the most dramatic change I’ve seen has been with students. Nowadays, if they spoke against gays, they'd hear about it from their peers. It’s not socially acceptable. The faculty has always been very accepting and kind towards us."
When you met, Tara had a son who was six from a prior relationship. What was it like raising him together?
TT: "It wasn't easy. When he was younger, I’d ask if anyone gave him a hard time at school because we’re gay and he’d say 'No, I'm fine. Everything’s fine.' Much later, when he was an adult, he said it was the most horrible thing he’d experienced— they teased him all the time."
Did your families ever come around to your relationship?
TM: "Recently, my mother died. Our relationship had gotten really bad for a while, then it seemed to get much better. When she got sick, she started coming up with excuses about why Tess and I shouldn't go see her. When she was actually dying, everyone was there but me. When I found out, one of my sisters told me, ‘Mom didn't want you to be there.’ That was really, really difficult."
Do you plan to get married when it becomes legal in Ohio?
TT: "We’re not legally married, but we couldn’t be more 'married'. It's a wonderful thing, but it amazes me we're even having this conversation. It's taken so long."