No <I>Progress</I>: Gay wedding picks nixed

Like any happy bride, local resident Elizabeth Clopton wanted to share the joy of her upcoming nuptials with the community in which she lives. But her bubble was unceremoniously burst when she called the Daily Progress to purchase an engagement announcement.

"A guy calls back and says they can't print it because it's not paper policy," relates Clopton. When she asked about simply buying an ad, she says she was similarly rebuffed. "We'll print the ad," she says she was told, "when it's legal in this state for two women to get married."

The Hook was unable to reach Daily Progress publisher Lawrence McConnell by press time for comment on the paper's policy. The Progress seems to have no problem with photos of gay unions– as long as they're in the news section. On May 18, the paper printed a section-front photo of two women getting married in Massachusetts.

The Progress' position isn't unusual. The New York Times didn't start printing same-sex wedding announcements until 2002, and papers across the country haven't rushed to follow suit.

Ray Kozakewicz, a spokesman for Media General, which owns the Progress and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, says there's no corporate policy on gay betrothal announcements, so it's up to individual newspapers to decide. "In Virginia," he adds, "it's not a legal union."

That's the reason the Times-Dispatch cites for declining to publish same-sex announcements. "You do not have the legal benefits as other couples," says managing editor Louise Seals.

And she's not swayed by the decisions of journalistic heavyweights like the Washington Post and the Times to do so– even though such unions are not legal in those cities, either.

 The Roanoke Times' policy allows same-sex announcements if there's a local connection and there's a legal entity– e.g., Vermont or Massachusetts– that recognizes the union, according to advertising director Debbie Meade. The paper made the decision to accept such paid announcements under "Celebrations" in 2003, but so far, hasn't run any.

One Central Virginia newspaper has printed a same-sex announcement: Staunton's News Leader. Nearly three years ago, the paper ran the announcement of the wedding of two men who'd had a civil union in Vermont and a service in the chapel at the College of William and Mary.

It generated letters for a while, says Dave Fritch, News Leader editor. He wrote a column that ran on a Sunday– but it was the Sunday before September 11. "That adjusted people's priorities," says Fritch. "They had more important things to worry about."

Fritch defends the decision to run the announcement in fairly conservative Staunton, where 83 percent of elementary school students attend mid-day Bible classes during the school year.

"We welcome important news in our readers' lives," Fritch says. "We try to make sure our pages look like our community."

But that inclusiveness doesn't really help Charlottesvillian Clopton, who already was having a bad week. Besides the rebuff from the Progress, the General Assembly passed HB 751, Delegate Robert Marshall's Marriage Affirmation bill. It prohibits marriages and civil contracts– even if performed in state where they're legal.

"We can't have joint tenancy with rights of survivorship or power of attorney," laments Clopton. "She'd have to pay inheritance tax, and we couldn't adopt each other's children."

Nonetheless, Clopton and her fiancée, Mary Bouldin, plan to marry next April at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church.

The Rev. David Takahashi Morris, who will perform the service, says he has seen the fear and anxiety that HB 751 has caused local same-sex couples.

"The wedding announcement issue arose within a much broader context," he says. "It's not just an issue of what type of advertisement a newspaper will accept.

"It increases my concern for couples I work with in a state that actively tries to prevent their access to civil rights. We include that in our counseling," he says.

Since coming to Charlottesville in the fall of 2001, Takahashi Morris has done a few same-sex weddings. With HB 751, he wonders if, when he performs those ceremonies, a broad reading of that law that prohibits "purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage" could put him at risk.

"Having a law that is widely open to interpretation leaves you vulnerable to the interpretation of local law enforcement," Takahashi Morris points out.

He's safe from prosecution here. "I don't see anything from this language that creates a criminal offense," says Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman. "I wouldn't have any desire to [prosecute] anyway."

Despite the Commonwealth of Virginia's attempts to put a damper on Clopton and Boudin's wedding, Clopton sounds deliriously happy.

"We've just known each other a few months," she says. "Sometimes you just know."

And she is finding some support. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church is putting up a banner that reads, "This church supports marriage rights." And because Boudin is from Northern Virginia, they will be able to announce their engagement in the Post.

"I think if people would get past their fears and look at our faces, they'd find we're just like you," she says. "It's not about sex; it's about who you fall in love with."

Mary Bouldin and Elizabeth Clopton want the world to know they're getting married– but the Daily Progress won't print their announcement.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church shows support for marriage, regardless of gender.