When Jessica Port showed up in court Friday to pursue a divorce, she first stopped to consult with her lawyer. Then she crossed the room to hug her ex, chatting happily until it was time to be seated.
The electronic board outside the courtroom identified the case as “No. 69, Jessica Port v. Virginia Anne Cowan.” That title is misleading. Port and Cowan are on the same side of this case: They both want to get divorced. But a Prince George’s County judge said they could not, reasoning that because same-sex marriage is not legal in the state, neither is same-sex divorce.
Virginia General Assembly
Virginia General Assembly
Now the highest court in Maryland will decide whether he was right, and whether the women will be required to maintain a bond they’ve tried for almost two years to sever.
The case represents just one of the many blind spots in the legal infrastructure of same-sex marriage in America. Couples often have different rights when they cross jurisdictional lines and may not have the same status in the eyes of the federal government as they do in their home states. The laws are constantly evolving and election-year politics promise to heighten the already divisive passion surrounding the issue.
Port was 21 when she met Cowan at at a meeting for gay and lesbian students and their allies at Montgomery College in Rockville. The two quickly fell in love and after a year decided to move in together. An engagement followed and when California legalized same-sex marriage in 2008, they flew to San Francisco, exchanged vows at the courthouse and spent the rest of the trip sight-seeing.
But soon after their return it became apparent that the marriage wasn’t working. “We were so young when we met and fell in love and kind of fell in love with this fantasy idea of being together and growing old together,” says Port, now 30 and a counselor at a high school for at-risk youth. “We realized that that future we had agreed upon was very different — we wanted different things.”
Port moved to Hyattsville and purchased a home. Cowan remained in the District, where they had been living. Port knew that in order to file for a divorce in Maryland, spouses must first live apart for a year. In the summer of 2010, Port and Cowan, who have many mutual friends and an amicable relationship, spoke again and decided together that divorce was the best option for them.
They sought guidance at a free law clinic and were assured that the divorce was no problem — other same-sex couples had been granted divorces in the past. Port filed the requisite paperwork with Prince George’s County and on the day of the hearing, she and Cowan sat next to each other in court, playing Hangman and Tic-tac-toe to pass the time. They watched as one couple after another was granted a divorce.
The women had already divided their property. The divorce was uncontested and they had no outstanding issues for the court to resolve. They were sure their case was cut and dried. But when they were called to the bench — the last case of the day — Judge Michael Chapdelaine said his decision would be delivered by mail.