Sitting at the dinner table in her West Philly rowhome, 29-year-old Amanda Kole glances over at her partner of two years, 26-year-old Rachel Turanski, and smiles. “I never thought we’d be people who were political or controversial. We just wanted to exercise our rights, and we had to go to Iowa to do it.”
Despite their hesitancy to become poster girls for LGBT activism, Kole and Turanski are preparing to thrust themselves into the heated debate over same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania as the subjects of the forthcoming documentary Married in Spandex.
The 30-minute film, due in the spring, follows the couple’s road trip last June from Philadelphia to Iowa—one of five U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, where gay marriage is legal. They were wed (in spandex outfits) by gold-lamé-clad lady rapper and marriage officiant Leslie Hall in an over-the-top ceremony that featured a performance from flamboyant Philly dance troupe Club Lyfestile.
Why travel 1,100 miles to get married, only to return to a state that doesn’t recognize their status? “Because we could, and it was a celebration of our love, and it was a crazy fun party,” Turanski says. And, notes Kole, if gay marriage is ever legalized in Pennsylvania, “the tax breaks and full domestic partner benefits are pretty nice.”
Kole, a librarian, and Turanski, an educator, explain that they didn’t initially set out to make a documentary. The footage was meant to be a wedding video, shot as a present by Kole’s sister Allison and her sister’s boyfriend, independent filmmaker Devin Gallagher, who piled into a van with the couple, their dog Darla and a few other friends for the 18-hour journey to Ames.
Soon after the nuptials, however, they realized they had captured not only a colorful cast of characters but something more poignant and significant: The experience of several members of Kole’s family—conservative, religious people who have traditionally opposed same-sex marriage—who traveled to the wedding in spite of their misgivings.
“They ended up supporting us even though they were in an environment that they weren’t used to and in no way could be prepared for,” Kole says. “But they embraced it … and they’ve accepted Rachel into the family.”
The couple says the idea behind Married in Spandex is to appeal to viewers’ sense of compassion and humor, rather than bash them over the head with their convictions.
“We’re not Michael Moore-ing it up,” Turanski laughs. “Fighting fire with fire doesn’t do anything but make people more angry. Ideally, people will watch this and think, ‘They love each other, they’re stable, they have great jobs, they’re hilarious, they’re putting good into the world—why not just let them get married and have it be legal in Pennsylvania?’”
But that’s a pretty tough sell to Pennsylvania’s strident gay marriage foes gearing up for battle this year. On Feb. 11 and 12, the Pennsylvania Family Institute is hosting a conference called The Art of Marriage —a six-session video event created by the Arkansas-based ministry FamilyLife—at churches in Reading and Harrisburg.
While touted as a means for couples to build “godly marriages” through advice from more than a dozen prominent evangelical leaders (including pastor Paul David Tripp of Philadelphia’s Paul Tripp Ministries), many LGBT advocates believe that the videos—the specific contents of which are being kept tightly under wraps until their Feb. 11 premiere—are a thinly veiled effort to uphold the “one man-one woman” definition of marriage and drum up local support for what they view as the anti-gay agenda of groups like PFI. (The Art of Marriage conference made national headlines last month when word that a Pennsylvania Chick-fil-A was donating food to the event led numerous gay-rights groups to call for a boycott of the fast-food chain.)
Critics of PFI point to president Michael Geer’s public statements calling same-sex marriage “not moral” and a “tragedy,” as well as his group’s call for a “marriage protection” amendment to Pennsylvania’s Constitution—similar to California’s controversial Proposition 8—that would ban same-sex marriage. And there’s the essay co-written by FamilyLife president Dennis Rainey titled “Gay Marriages … What’s the Big Deal?” in which Rainey (who also appears in The Art of Marriage videos) concludes that America faces a future of severe social ills “if we allow gay marriage to further undermine and redefine an institution God created.”
Geer did not respond to several phone calls and emails seeking comment. But when asked if The Art of Marriage contains any anti-same-sex marriage content, Joy Roark, FamilyLife’s marketing communications director, said: “The event looks at what the Bible teaches about marriage. There’s nothing in The Art of Marriage that specifically addresses any challenges faced by gay couples. There may be things that people disagree with … but they’re welcome to attend anyway.”
Many signs seem to indicate momentum is on the side of Pennsylvania’s same-sex proponents: The December repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; the growing likelihood that New York and Maryland will legalize same-sex marriage this year; and a recent Pew Research Center poll that found that fewer than half of all Americans oppose gay marriage. But Ted Martin, executive director of the LGBT rights organization Equality Pennsylvania, believes his group will struggle in 2011 to hold ground against the intense anti-gay marriage lobbying efforts from PFI and other well-funded groups, whose cause was certainly helped by the conservative Republican sweep of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly last November. That may have emboldened State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, (R-Butler County), who plans to introduce a marriage protection bill sometime this year—even if three similar efforts over the past four years failed.
Though Martin says he’ll continue the fight to legalize same-sex marriage, he believes it’s a moot point if LGBT citizens are not first protected by nondiscrimination legislation. “If suddenly I could get married in Pennsylvania and I could marry my partner on Saturday, Saturday night I could get denied a hotel room for my honeymoon. And then Tuesday I could get fired when the marriage announcement comes out in the newspaper. And by Thursday I’m living in a refrigerator box under a bridge. But I’m married.”
Indeed, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age or national origin,” but not sexual orientation or gender identity. Efforts by some state lawmakers to amend the act over the past decade have failed. “In roughly 85 percent of the state, people can still be fired for being openly gay,” Martin says. “Philadelphia affords a more protected life for LGBT folk, but you don’t have to go very far outside the city for it to be a completely different situation.”
Stephen Glassman, chairperson of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Committee, says that because numerous efforts over the past decade to pass a statewide nondiscrimination law have failed, his focus has turned to passing local sexual orientation/gender identity nondiscrimination ordinances. In addition to Philly, such laws are already on the books in places like Lower Merion, West Chester and Doylestown, and similar efforts are currently under way throughout Bucks, Montgomery and Delaware counties despite pushback from members of PFI and the American Family Association.
Glassman believes that once all of these laws are in place in Pennsylvania, legalization of gay marriage will follow, all of it possibly within the next couple years, He scoffs at what he terms the “desperate attempts by some people to prevent the inevitable.”
“In places that have legalized same-sex marriage, it’s been a tremendous success. The sky hasn’t fallen, no one’s married a dog, and there hasn’t been any financial or economic impact that’s been in any way negative,” Glassman says.
By Michael Alan Goldberg In this week’s PW, we introduce you to Amanda Kole and Rachel Turanski—a lesbian couple in West Philly who road-tripped to Iowa last summer to exchange wedding vows. And they had it all filmed for an upcoming documentary called Married in Spandex, which dives headfirst into the heated debate over same-sex marriage [...]
Last May, when Tara Robertson began taking pictures of her friends in Philly’s LGBT community, the 24-year-old University of the Arts photography major didn’t expect that what was intended to be her senior-year fine-arts project would evolve into a potent campaign for gay equality in Pennsylvania.