“I’m a little bit superstitious sometimes,” said Val Tanco. “When I have hunches of something big, it usually ends up being right.”
On a hunch, Tanco and her wife, Sophy Jesty, kept their daughter Emilia out of day care the morning of June 26 and asked their friend and attorney Regina Lambert (LAW ’01) to meet them at the College of Veterinary Medicine, where they are both assistant professors.
They gathered with several friends and other vet school employees in the room where Jesty performs cardiology work on animals, a small closet of a room that she calls the “echo” room.
They were waiting to see if Tanco’s hunch was going to be right. They hoped the spotty wireless connection in the echo room would hold out long enough for them to follow
a live blog of Supreme Court decisions to see if their marriage equality case would be included.
With fifteen-month-old Emilia (the impetus for their fight) wrapped up in Tanco’s arms, trying to sleep, Lambert read aloud the first words to come up. “It’s marriage.” Then they saw Justice Anthony Kennedy’s name and knew that Tanco’s hunch was right. Same-sex marriage had become legal nationwide.
With Emilia crying and cheers erupting all around and outside of the echo room, Lambert, Tanco, and Jesty knew that over the last two years they had played a part in an event that would reverberate through history.
Tanco and Jesty were married at a Brooklyn, New York, courthouse in September 2011. But when the couple moved to Knoxville to begin working at the vet school, their marriage was not recognized under Tennessee state law.
In 2013, the US Supreme Court overturned the federal portion of the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, holding that under federal law, recognizing only heterosexual couples’ marriages is unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment, leading to federal tax and other benefits for same-sex couples. Quickly, a flood of lawsuits were filed by advocacy groups and same-sex couples to challenge other individual state bans on same-sex marriage.
Jesty and Tanco told UT’s Tennessee Law magazine in December 2014 that they didn’t set out to take part in the matter, but they became involved thanks to Lambert, who is not only a UT alumna but also a frequent adjunct instructor at the College of Law.
Lambert and other legal professionals from across the state came together and decided to push for recognition of same-sex marriages from other states. She recruited her friends Tanco and Jesty, who she knew were prime examples of the challenges that many same-sex couples were facing: they were legally married in one state, but their marriage wasn’t recognized in another state to which they had moved. Also, because Tanco and Jesty
work for UT, an institution governed by the state of Tennessee, they were unable to be recognized as a family unit for insurance and benefit purposes.
Though the couple was wary of getting involved, they soon realized what it could mean for others as well as the heavy bearing it could have on a new situation in their own lives—Tanco was pregnant.
Without recognition of the couple’s marriage in the state, baby Emilia would have only one legally recognized parent, and if anything happened to Tanco as the birth mother, Jesty would have no legal rights to her daughter.
Lambert and the legal team went to work, convincing a federal judge to have Tanco and Jesty’s marriage recognized in Tennessee for the time being to allow them to put both parents’ names on the baby’s birth certificate.
Emilia was the first baby born in Tennessee to have a woman listed as “father” on her birth certificate.
In April 2015, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, which included Tanco v. Haslam and three other cases. On June 26, in a 5–4 decision, history was made, and the court held that the Fourteenth Amendment does require all states to
grant same-sex marriages and recognize those granted in other states.
At a press conference later that same day, Lambert, Tanco, and Jesty lauded Tennessee and Governor Bill Haslam for being supportive of the outcome.
“It’s so great that Tennessee has handled it the way that they did,” said Lambert. “To have this special day without any bumps in the road and to feel the support of your
local and state government—I’m so proud of not just our Supreme Court for being on the right side of history, but our state and local government as well.”
Less than two weeks later, the state of Tennessee’s Benefits Administration began accepting insurance applications from same-sex married couples.
“The historic ruling helps the university take a significant step forward in our efforts to enhance diversity and inclusion on our campus,” read an e-mail from UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek.
The trio expresses thankfulness for the support they’ve received from their coworkers and friends inside and outside the university. Jesty told Tennessee Law that they’ve met many people who thank them for leading the way for change through the case. While the couple knows that the outcome of the case has changed the lives of thousands of people around the country, they really did it for Emilia.
During the June 26 press conference, Tanco recalled being in the echo room amidst all the celebration, looking at Emilia and thinking, “She will never know anything different. Her family will always be recognized.”
Tanco continued, “We’ll have to explain to her why her picture is out in the news, or why her name keeps coming up on Google…. I hope she’s proud when I tell her.”
A journalist asked Jesty the inevitable question: “Do you feel like that it all has been worth it now that the decision is out?”
Jesty replied, “Yes, without one shred of doubt, yes. It was all worth it…. We fought for her [Emilia] and for her safety and her rights and for the recognition of her family.”
“I feel free today,” said Jesty. “The most free I’ve ever felt.”