More than just 'I do'
A widow, a death certificate and the fall of Georgia's same-sex marriage ban
By PATRICK SAUNDERS
When marriage equality becomes the law of the land in Georgia, thousands of samesex couples across the state will line up to exchange vows. That’s the picture everyone will have in their minds and on their social media feeds that day—happy couples, flowers, uninhibited enthusiasm.
But another victory—no less important or profound—will also take place, and it won’t be in a county probate court or a chapel or an elaborately decorated event space. It will happen in a nondescript room at the State Office of Vital Records, when the marital status on the death certificate of Pam Drenner will be updated from “single” to “married.”
A few days later, her widow Jennifer Sisson—a plaintiff in Georgia’s federal class action lawsuit challenging the state’s 2004 same-sex marriage ban—will receive that death certificate. An egregious wrong will finally be made right.
A relationship begins...eventually
Sisson, a 35-year-old engineer who lives in Decatur, and Drenner’s relationship wasn’t exactly a story of love at first sight. In fact, it wasn’t even love at first decade.
They met through mutual friends around late 2001. They ran into each other every so often thereafter, but didn’t spend any significant amount of time together. But come 2011, circumstances had changed for both, and a relationship bloomed.
Sisson’s low-key, almost soft-spoken personality and fierce intelligence paired up well
“Even sitting there that day with them telling me that, I was just completely dumbfounded. I was Pam’s full-time caregiver. I’d spent six or seven months solely 24 hours a day caring for Pam and I feel like that type of commitment only comes with something like a marriage.”
with the more extroverted Drenner.
“She was very unique, very dynamic, funny. She made everyone laugh. She was always very creative so you never knew what each day was going to bring. You were always entertained, always doing something. She was rarely bored. If she got bored she developed some new adventure for everybody to go on, and sometimes that would incorporate the whole neighborhood. Very intelligent.”
They married on Valentine’s Day in 2013 in New York. Six weeks later, Drenner went in for a follow-up for the ovarian cancer she had first been diagnosed with in 2008, and newlywed bliss came to an immediate halt. The cancer was back.
Drenner went through several treatments over the following year. They didn’t take. She died on March 1, 2014, leaving behind not only Sisson, but also Drenner’s two children from a previous marriage.
‘He tells me the state of Georgia doesn’t recognize our marriage’
The day after Drenner’s death, Sisson went to the funeral home with a friend and Drenner’s 18-year-old son Evan.
She began filling out a form that would provide the information for Drenner’s death certificate, not hesitating when she got to the section on marital status. She checked “married,” filled in her name as the spouse, and gave the form to the funeral home employee.
“He tells me the state of Georgia doesn’t recognize our marriage,” Sisson says.
They went back and forth, with Sisson understandably unwilling to say her late wife was single, widowed or divorced. The only other option available was a box called “unknown.” Sisson checked it and they left.
One day a few weeks later, Sisson got a letter in the mail from the State Office of Vital Records. She opened it and pulled out Drenner’s death certificate. Under marital status, it said “single.”
Apparently, “unknown” defaults to “single” in the state’s system. And their marriage wasn’t legally recognized by the state, so there was nothing to be done. The state of Georgia had erased Drenner and Sisson’s marriage.
“Even sitting there that day with them telling me that, I was just completely dumbfounded,” she says. “I was Pam’s full-time caregiver. I’d spent six or seven months solely 24 hours a day caring for Pam and I feel like that type of commitment only comes with something like a marriage.”
Taking a cue from her late wife, she sprang into action.
‘It’s a chance to write a different ending to the story’
It was April 22, 2014, less than two months since Sisson had said goodbye to her wife. She stood in a conference room in Midtown with three other couples (a fourth would join them a few months later) and a team of attorneys from Lambda Legal. She looked out at an army of local and national press who eagerly waited to hear from the plaintiffs at the center of the federal classaction lawsuit filed that morning challenging Georgia’s 2004 same-sex marriage ban.
Now it’s in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, with a decision to come down any day now.
Beth Littrell, senior attorney for Lambda Legal, says, “If the Supreme Court recognizes that state marriage bans violate the constitutional rights of same-sex couples, we expect Defendant [state registrar Deborah] Aderhold to issue a corrected certificate reflecting the reality that Pam Drenner was married to Jennifer Sisson at the time of her death.” Sisson can’t help but smile at the thought. “I think it is a sense of closure. Also kind of a disbelief of, ‘Man, look at this path I just came down. Did this really happen?’ Because from that moment in the funeral home, I’ve never felt so alone and just so much against me. And yet to come out on the other side of that less than a year and a half later, I think there will certainly be a little bit of ‘We did it.’”
Sisson, 35, hopes to get closure when same-sex marriage is legalized and Georgia recognizes her and her late wife’s nuptials.