In 2012, Jon Robicheaux and Derek Penton made a lifelong commitment.
They rented a U-Haul truck, put gigantic ice chests of oysters and shrimp in the back and drove 16 hours to Iowa for a New Orleans-style wedding. They even chose Mardi Gras colors for the ceremony — the two of them in light green, their best men in yellow and their bridesmaids in purple.
The couple proudly displays their Iowa marriage certificate on the wall of the Bywater home they bought together a few years ago.
But because it’s a same-sex marriage, it’s officially meaningless in Louisiana.
So last summer, the couple quietly filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage, which also bars state government from recognizing legal unions performed in other states.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman will hear arguments in a case that now includes a total of six married same-sex couples who live in Louisiana.
Same-sex marriage is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and lawsuits against prohibitions on it have been filed in every state.
The momentum began last summer, after the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that put 83-year-old plaintiff Edith Windsor in the national spotlight. The court ruled that Windsor was wrongfully denied federal estate-tax benefits after the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, because it was unconstitutional for federal law to interpret “spouse” and “marriage” as terms that applied only to heterosexual couples.
Depending on what Feldman eventually rules, Jon Robicheaux, as the lead plaintiff in the Louisiana case, could be similarly remembered in state history. He and Penton will have stories to tell the child they’re now working with a surrogate to have, with the hope that Louisiana law will soon change to allow same-sex parents to be listed on an adopted child’s birth certificate.
Outside of this case, the two men live a low-key life. Because their wardrobes consist mostly of T-shirts and jeans, they both recently bought the suits they’ll wear to court Wednesday.
They own a modest house and each morning head to work: Penton as a paramedic, Robicheaux as a bartender at the Golden Lantern Bar in the French Quarter. At the end of the day, they sit together watching their dogs romp around the backyard before making dinner, watching TV and turning in for the night.
“On Saturdays, we cut loose and stay out till midnight,” Robicheaux said.
That’s the night that Penton’s duo, the Esplanade Ave. Band, opens for the Golden Lantern’s famous weekly drag shows. Penton plays keyboards and sings; his bandmate plays guitar and sings. Penton and Robicheaux typically stick around for the drag show, then head home.
Inside their house, the marriage certificate hangs on a wall, next to another wall dedicated to the New Orleans Saints.
Penton has tracked the wins and losses for the same-sex marriage cases as religiously as he follows football, to the point of listening to the oral arguments for each of the cases tried in other states.
“We have 22 consecutive wins in our column,” Penton said, referring to cases where judges have struck down gay-marriage bans.
If a judge does decide that Louisiana must at least recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, the couple may renew their vows in front of their families, because not many were able to travel to Iowa. They’ll also celebrate by paying the state about $3,000 to change their names to Penton-Robicheaux.
“That’ll be our present to ourselves, to hyphenate,” Robicheaux said.
Robicheaux, 36, grew up in Houma, and Penton, 37, in Picayune, Mississippi, though some of his family is in New Orleans.
Like many people in their generation, they didn’t come out as gay until after high school. Penton remembered that at one point before he told anyone, he had breakfast at a Waffle House with his mother, who told him, “If you’re trying to come out, it’s fine.”
“That made it easier,” he said.
The couple first met on Lundi Gras in 2007, when Penton, in town from Mississippi, stopped for a drink at the Bourbon Pub and Parade, where Robicheaux was tending bar. They hit it off, and Penton came back for another visit the next weekend. Not long afterward, Penton’s employer transferred him to New Orleans.
The couple’s lawyer, Richard Perque, was there when they met. Beyond friendship, the case is meaningful to Perque, who also is gay, because his family also holds a place in gay rights history in Louisiana. In 2004, as the Legislature debated a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Perque’s grandfather, longtime state lawmaker Risley “Pappy” Triche, spoke in the Capitol, revealing that his own son had been killed in a gay-bashing incident 20 years before and asking his fellow legislators not to pass the ban.
“You will create division,” Triche warned. “You will create hatred.”
Now Perque, representing Robicheaux and Penton, hopes to help undo the amendment his grandfather argued against.
As with Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case, the issue of marriage rights has become financial for Robicheaux and Penton.
There was the time that Robicheaux was hospitalized and racked up thousands of dollars of bills because he couldn’t be covered as a spouse under Penton’s insurance policy. At tax time last year, they filed federal taxes jointly but had to prepare two separate federal returns, one just to tally the numbers for the state returns, which they had to file separately.
But they are hopeful that the state of Louisiana will officially become as accepting as the society they now live in. Even in Robicheaux’s hometown, Houma, the gay bar is now on a main street and customers no longer feel the need to park behind the bar, where their car won’t be seen, he said.
In New Orleans, Penton’s so-called “gay softball league” fields a number of straight players these days. And at the Golden Lantern, a longtime stronghold of the gay community, much of the crowd — during drag shows and otherwise — consists of straight neighbors who just happen to like the place.
This case, Robicheaux believes, would make a similar statement: that married couples are simply married couples, whether gay or straight.
“We’re not any different,” he said.