| AMY TANNENBAUM
Long before they were leading a charge for marriage equality and other civil rights in Ohio, Ian James and Stephen Letourneau met at a social event in 1999. Ian, who describes himself as gregarious, started up a conversation with a friend of Stephen’s. “I was talking to this girl who I just met, and she introduced Stephen to me,” says Ian. “Next thing you know, we have a dog and a house.”
Ian, who grow up in Athens, Ohio, and Stephen, who grow up in Mentor, Ohio, then in upstate New York and finally in Cincinnati, Ohio, both came from supportive families that encouraged them to help others and “do good” in life. It is no surprise these two would go on to lead Freedom to Marry Ohio, to fight for marriage equality, to consult on monumental political campaigns and organize civil rights ballot measures.
However, long before Stephen and Ian met, coming to terms with being gay and coming out to their own families still presented a set of challenges. Though Ian realized he was gay at age 5, he didn’t come out until age 27. “You can either come to grips with who you are and be happy, or you can continue to be in denial and be unhappy,” explains Ian. “I chose happiness.”
Stephen, who attended school and worked in John Boehner’s district in West Chester, Ohio, describes his experience: “You had to be Republican or straight, and it was easier to be straight.” His family was accepting of gay people, but the model they knew didn’t involve having gay people having a family.
During Christmas of 2000, Stephen’s car stalled while returning from Cincinnati after a difficult visit with his family (involving an argument about gay marriage). Ian rescued Stephen and brought him back to their Columbus home. Stephen was not in a good mood, but Ian decided to move forward with his plan to propose that evening. They walked upstairs to find shreds of Tiffany blue from the ring box that had been attacked by their puppy, Waverly. Stephen immediately assumed the box contained a keychain and declared, with his back facing Ian, that he just wanted to go to bed.
Ian inspected the chewed up box and found the ring intact. He decided, “No, I am doing this.” With Stephen’s back still turned to him, Ian got down on one knee and asked Stephen to marry him. Stephen responded, “If that is a keychain, that is not funny;
I am going to kill you.” Ian remained quiet, and Stephen, realizing this was the real deal, said, “Oh, say it again!” They returned to Cincinnati the next day to celebrate Christmas with Stephen’s family, and just 36 hours after their argument, they all celebrated the news of their engagement.
Initially, Stephen and Ian planned a “big crazy wedding” in Columbus. Soon, the celebration started to become so overwhelming that they decided to postpone the wedding and put the money toward a business opportunity. Two years later in 2003, they were following Canadian marriage law and were prepared to make the trip as soon as they made their ruling. After Canada legalized gay marriage, the couple traveled to the country with plans set for the marriage process and the officiant, but figured out the details upon arrival. They married on a boat fittingly called “New Beginnings.” Befitting their early dates, they recited their vows while someone was trying to start a sea plane nearby. “It was actually great; our first big wedding got too big and out of control and didn’t feel like us,” explains Stephen. “We were fortunate that we had the opportunity to step back.”
Ian and Stephen, who have been married for 11 years, were the first gay couple from Ohio to get married in Canada. When they returned from their trip, people questioned why they got married. “We just got married because we were in love,” Stephen explains. “We weren’t trying to change the world; it was a natural progression for us and our family.” To this day, they continue this message in communicating about marriage equality as a family protection issue. “It’s marriage, not ‘gay marriage,’” says Ian. “We didn’t get a free rainbow unicorn when we got married – sadly.”