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Two decades after their first try, LGBT activists Gene Dugan and Jay Brause wed in Alaska

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 25, 2015

It only took them 21 years, four previous attempts and one Alaska constitutional amendment being implemented and overturned, but last week, Jay Brause and Gene Dugan finally married in Alaska.

"It feels like a completion," Dugan said in an interview with the couple Tuesday in a home on the Anchorage Hillside. The two were in Alaska for the past month, sorting through the last of their belongings, donating 16 boxes of professional paperwork to the University of Alaska Anchorage and visiting friends before returning to their home in England. They left Wednesday.

The wedding on Sept. 19 brought the couple's attempts to legally wed in the state full circle. Dugan and Brause, co-founders of Out North art house and LGBT activists, first tried to marry in Alaska in 1994. The results of that action led to a legal maelstrom that ended with a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 1998. That provision was struck down by a federal judge last October and reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.

Over 100 people attended the wedding of Dugan, 63, and Brause, 62. The Quaker ceremony at the Pioneer School House in Anchorage meant the two declared their vows to each other without a pastor, a Quaker tradition. They wore "Alaskan tuxedos" -- matching gray fleece vests and jeans -- and shared a sheet cake with a two-grooms cake topper from their first legal marriage in Portland, Oregon, in 2004.

Despite pressure from family and friends, the two weren't convinced they would marry when they bought their tickets in early June to return to Anchorage. Marriage in Alaska was legal, but the U.S. Supreme Court still hadn't ruled. To the couple, the issue was far from an easy "yes or no." Pain over previous attempts to wed still lingered.

"We had hesitancy," Brause said. "Others who hadn't gone through the grinder thought this was a done deal."

But when the courts moved to affirm marriage, the couple decided to move forward.

"There's a massive healing," Brause said Tuesday of the wedding.

A long history

Over the years, the couple accumulated a stack of wedding certificates as they sought legal marriage.

There was their first marriage -- a "holy union ceremony" -- held in 1979. In 2004 they legally wed for the first time in Portland -- a marriage that was nullified by the state of Oregon a year later. Then there are the international marriages they had in both South Africa (2006) and the Yukon (2007).

But the one with the broadest implications for Alaskans is Aug. 4, 1994. It's the date that set off a series of events that concluded with Alaskans adopting a constitutional amendment in 1998 banning same-sex marriage in the state.

The couple has granted limited interviews over the years on their desire to legally wed. On Tuesday they said that was intentional. When they first filed, they were running Out North, the arts organization they started in 1985. Already well-known Alaska LGBT activists, they worried about attacks on funding lines to the nonprofit art house getting cut. Their attorneys advised them to remain quiet, so they did.

But that was somewhat begrudging, they said. They said numerous publications over the years referred to them as a "naive" couple that just decided to get married on a whim. They say the reality was far from that.

"We have seen naive couples who walked into the court hoping to get married, but we were not one them," Dugan said.

The couple said they spent years preparing to bring a lawsuit, starting in 1986 when Brause interned with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. By the time the couple finally applied to wed, it had been almost a decade in the making.

For the couple, the issue was a matter of having the legal protections their religious holy union could not provide. But the lawsuit backfired, with lawmakers and voters ultimately approving a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 1998.

That and subsequent losses in the case contributed to the couple's decision to leave Alaska for England in 2006.

"I just ask people, what would you think when they say 'oh, don't take the constitutional amendment personally' when it's your name on it?" Brause said. "It's so intimate. And I've been rejected in so many ways as a gay activist. … And there was just a point when it was too much."

The couple now feels better about the state of Alaska LGBT rights, but think there's still much to be done. They both praised the Anchorage Assembly for its move on an equal rights ordinance for LGBT residents. The measure is expected to pass, but the couple worries it could backfire and be repealed in a matter of years.

The couple said a permanent return to Alaska is unlikely, since they're happy with the life they've established across the Atlantic. Dugan leads a nonprofit and Brause is going back to school to complete his bachelor's degree in philosophy. But overall, they are impressed with how LGBT rights in Alaska have evolved.

"It's a final note, we're leaving," Brause said. "But now it's really clear that we're welcome."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the organization Jay Brause interned for in 1986. Brause interned with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, not the American Civil Liberties Union.

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