Fam­ily waits for recog­ni­tion

O. C. cou­ple are among the plain­tiffs in fed­eral gay mar­riage case

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Emily Fox­hall

Here in the sub­urbs, Matthew, John and their two chil­dren are just another nu­clear fam­ily co­zied up in front of the TV on a Satur­day night.

Their sin­gle- story house sits on a quiet residential street in Pla­cen­tia, a small slice of north­ern Or­ange County where some of the street signs are dec­o­rated with pa­tri­otic sym­bols and the motto is an invit­ing “A pleas­ant place to live.”

Tonight is movie night — the fam­ily’s fa­vorite shared Satur­day ac­tiv­ity. It’s 8- year- old Wy­att’s turn to pick, and he de­cides on “ParaNor­man,” an an­i­mated com­edy about a boy’s quest to end a curse on a town where a tri­bunal years be­fore had de­clared a lit­tle girl a witch.

Three thou­sand miles to the east, Matthew Mansell and John “Johno” Espejo are fac­ing a dif­fer­ent panel of judges. They are among more than 30 plain­tiffs in a po­ten­tially his­toric U. S. Supreme Court case that could fi­nally es­tab­lish na­tional law on same- sex mar­riage, po­ten­tially as far- reach­ing as a rul­ing that states have a con- sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tion to marry same- sex cou­ples. A de­ci­sion is ex­pected this month.

Their case deals with one end of the con­sti­tu­tional ques­tion the high court is fac­ing: Should the mar­riages of cou­ples who’ve been legally wed in one state be rec­og­nized in a state where gay mar­riage is il- le­gal? Mansell and Espejo were mar­ried in Cal­i­for­nia, but their union counted for lit­tle when they moved to Ten­nessee.

In their pe­ti­tion to the court, Mansell and Espejo said that in Ten­nessee, where they moved af­ter a job trans­fer, they were de­nied “the pro­tec­tions, obli­ga­tions, ben­e­fits, and se­curi- ty” the state guar­an­tees to other mar­ried cou­ples.

“They could have been great cit­i­zens here for­ever,” said Abby Ruben­feld, one of the cou­ple’s at­tor­neys. “And in­stead, at least in part — in big part, be­cause of this whole mar­riage thing — they ended up leav­ing and mov­ing back.”

Mansell, 53, and Espejo, 48, met in San Fran­cisco in 1995. They had sim­i­lar tastes in mu­sic. Both liked to swim. Three years later, they bought a house to­gether.

In May 2008, the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court le­gal­ized gay mar­riage, and dur­ing a lunch break that Au­gust, the cou­ple got mar­ried at City Hall in San Fran­cisco.

“I wanted to make a state­ment,” Mansell said. “There’s noth­ing wrong with get­ting mar­ried.”

They would be among an es­ti­mated 18,000 Cal­i­for­nia cou­ples to do so be­fore vot­ers that Novem­ber made same- sex mar­riage illegal again. The U. S. Supreme Court later struck down the bal­lot mea­sure, and gay mar­riage re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia.

Legally mar­ried, Mansell and Espejo adopted two chil­dren and felt not the least bit con­spic­u­ous in lib- eral North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

There are all kinds of fam­i­lies in this world, they ex­plained to the kids. Some chil­dren are raised by sin­gle moms, oth­ers by two moms. They would have two dads. They would use both last names: Espejo Mansell. Espejo would stay home to raise them.

Then, in May 2012, Mansell’s job as a con­flict an­a­lyst for a law f irm brought the cou­ple to Franklin, Tenn., a grace­ful city not far from Nashville. But to Mansell and Espejo, it seemed hos­tile, and they felt judged and mis­un­der­stood. And just by cross­ing state lines, they were no longer treated as a mar­ried cou­ple.

They picked their bat­tles: The fam­ily booed when­ever they passed Chick- f il- A, whose pres­i­dent had de­nounced gay mar­riage. To show he wasn’t em­bar­rassed, Mansell re­ferred to Espejo as “my hus­band” in public.

When the of­fer came to join a fed­eral gay- mar­riage case, they signed on al­most im­me­di­ately. They wanted to see change.

“I think it was im­por­tant for him, for his fam­ily, to be rec­og­nized,” said fam­ily friend Snezana Nedic, who worked with Mansell in San Fran­cisco and has stayed in touch with the cou­ple. “He wasn’t re­ally sure what his rights were in Ten­nessee, so it was this con­stant un­cer­tainty.”

Mansell and Espejo thought the case might be re­solved at the state level, but the U. S. 6th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals de­cided in the state’s fa­vor in Novem­ber 2014. The next step was the fed­eral Supreme Court.

Con­cerned that they had opened them­selves up to ridicule, or worse, the cou­ple re­turned late last year to Cal­i­for­nia, where they be­lieved they could walk into a res­tau­rant with their chil- dren with­out feel­ing judged by other din­ers. Even in con­ser­va­tive Or­ange County, their prob­lems would be re­duced to those that any other fam­ily might face: qui­et­ing loud voices, cor­rect­ing gram­mar and han­dling an abrupt ex­plo­sion of tears. Their neigh­bors were kind, their chil­dren’s teach­ers sup­port­ive and no­body did a dou­ble- take when the fam­ily went to the gro­cery store.

Back at home, the an­i­mated com­edy film seems to strike an oddly fa­mil­iar note.

Nor­man, the pro­tag­o­nist, sees spir­its of the dead that no one else can see. He is bul­lied and shunned; he has only one friend. Yet he suc­ceeds in lift­ing the curse.

“They’re all judges,” Mansell tells his chil­dren as the town el­ders emerge from their graves, noth­ing more than zom­bies now. Espejo can’t help him­self. “Scalia,” he jokes as a zom­bie with a rum­pled shirt and yel­low eyes comes into view, al­lud­ing to Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia, who is ex­pected to vote against same- sex mar­riage.

When the movie ends, the kids are told to rush off and brush their teeth, just part of the Satur­day rou­tine.

Rick Loomis Los An­ge­les Times

MATTHEW MANSELL, left, and John Espejo play soc­cer with their chil­dren Wy­att, 8, and El­yse, 7, right, in their yard. The cou­ple wed in Cal­i­for­nia in 2008.

Rick Loomis Los An­ge­les Times

AF­TER FIND­ING a less wel­com­ing com­mu­nity in Ten­nessee, Matthew Mansell, left, and John Espejo re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia to raise their chil­dren in Pla­cen­tia.

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