HAMPDEN, Maine — Emerson Merrill-Maguire’s third birthday party last Sunday was pretty much like that of most boys his age. There were balloons, cake, ice cream and lots of presents. He was surrounded by family and friends armed with cameras that captured his reaction every time he dove into another gift bag.
One of the things that sets Emerson apart from most of the other boys who turned 3 this month is that both his parents are women. Melinda and Charissa Merrill-Maguire sat on either side of him in the living room at his party.
Charissa Merrill-Maguire, 31, used an out-of-state sperm donor program and gave birth to him, and Melinda Merrill-Maguire, 30, adopted him in January 2008, shortly after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled same-sex adoption legal. The couple believe it is in their son’s best interest that they be allowed to marry so he has the same rights and benefits as children whose parents are male and female.
The decision over whether the Merrill-Maguires will be able to marry is in the hands of the Maine Legislature. The Judiciary Committee held a daylong hearing Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center on a bill that would repeal the law that says marriage may be only between a man and a woman.
The committee also heard testimony on a bill that would extend the rights and benefits of marriage to people on the Domestic Partner Registry but stop short of creating civil unions.
The Judiciary Committee has scheduled a work session on the bills at 1 p.m. Tuesday in its committee room at the State House.
During the past month, the Merrill-Maguires and another same-sex couple explained why it’s important to them to be allowed to wed.
For two decades, Paula Johnson has resisted having a commitment ceremony with her partner, Sue Estler. Recently, however, Johnson accepted Estler’s marriage proposal.
“I never would have predicted in my lifetime that [the legalization of same-sex marriage] would happen,” Johnson, 66, said during a recent interview at the couple’s Orono home. “I’m glad that it has. If it passes, I’ll get married just because I can.”
Estler, 64, said that although she and Johnson are registered as domestic partners, have wills and legal power of attorney for each other, they still don’t have all the benefits married men and women do. As they’ve aged and faced some health problems, Estler said, they’ve become more conscious of the legal benefits that come with marriage.
“Our reasons for wanting to get married have to do with the societal acceptance of marriage,” she said. “It’s not going to change how we relate to each other. But it would make a statement about our commitment to each other.”
Changing the law in Maine would not change the federal laws that govern most of the benefits that married people have, such as income tax deductions, Social Security survivor benefits or hundreds of other laws that would be changed only if the U.S. Congress approved same-sex marriage.
A change in the Maine law, however, would alter the way same-sex couples are viewed by society, Estler said.
“Even as accepting as our families have been, they don’t see us the same as they would if we were married,” she said.
Johnson was born in Caribou in October 1942. She grew up on a farm picking potatoes with four sisters until she was old enough to drive the truck during the fall harvest.
“You wouldn’t want to be a lesbian in Caribou, Maine, in the 1950s if you could help it,” Johnson said. “All the guys I dated in high school turned out to be gay, so I must have known but I wasn’t aware I was a lesbian until I was in my mid-20s.”
Estler was raised with two sisters and a brother in a small town, Allendale, N.J., and graduated from Douglass College of Rutgers University in 1966.
“If anyone said the word ‘homosexual,’ my face turned red,” Estler said of how she discovered her sexuality. “I was in such denial that I played on a lesbian softball team in San Francisco for five years before I came out in my 30s.”
Some reluctant to speak
The Merrill-Maguires understand why families like theirs would hesitate about being so public.
“It is with great care that we have decided to open our family and to be vulnerable to others’ judgments, criticisms, compassion and praise,” Melinda said. “We trust that Mainers will be gentle and open-minded when reading about our family. We believe that the people of Maine are fair-minded and independent — that most people, if they knew families like ours personally, would understand that we really are no different. Marriage is about protecting all Maine families.”
Catherine Kessler, 51, of Litchfield wore a bright red suit and red shoes to the hearing to show support for her daughter, Melinda Merrill-Maguire. Kessler believes that Melinda and Charissa Merrill-Maguire should be allowed to legally marry.
“The fight for same-sex marriage has been compared to the civil rights movement,” Kessler said Sunday at her grandson Emerson’s birthday party. “Society is constantly in a state of change and this one’s long overdue. My grandson ought to be able to have his parents be married.”
She said that if her daughter weren’t a lesbian, she doesn’t know where she would stand on the issue of same-sex marriage.
“I think I would have remained ignorant of the legal limitations [same-sex couples] have,” Kessler said.