Married in Iowa, but not Nebraska

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Sarah Fentress and Bambi Smith perform recently with their band, Not Sure, in Lincoln. (Photo courtesy Lincoln Journal Star)

Story by Hilary Kindschuh NewsNetNebraska

There were no reporters outside the Council Bluffs courthouse when Bambi Smith and Sarah Fentress of Lincoln arrived at 6:15 a.m. on April 27, 2009 — the first day same-sex marriage licenses were available in Iowa.

“We wanted to get there early because we wanted to be the first ones there so that we could get in and out and go and enjoy the rest of our day off,” Fentress said.

But by the time the Pottawattamie County Courthouse opened, droves of reporters and cameras had arrived, and Smith and Fentress — who were first in line — were videotaped and photographed as they applied for their license.

Bambi Smith and Sarah Fentress sign their marriage license application in Council Bluffs, Iowa on April 27, 2009. (Photo courtesy Lincoln Journal Star)

Smith and Fentress are one of 111 Nebraska couples who have gone to Iowa for same-sex marriage licenses between that first day and April 27, 2010.

On the ride home, Fentress, who worked as an outreach coordinator for a Lincoln nonprofit, started to worry about all the attention.

“I didn’t think about it when I was there,” she said. “All I was thinking about was us.”

Smith said although she and Fentress didn’t seek attention when they went to Council Bluffs, they have enjoyed the opportunity to advocate for other same-sex couples.

“I just think anybody who’s in a relationship who’s gay or lesbian should go to Iowa and get married,” she said. “Don’t let the crap that’s happened to us or the crap that’s happened to anybody else stop you from doing what you want to do.”

Fentress won’t talk about what happened next, but Smith said that when Fentress went to work the next morning, she wasn’t congratulated on her marriage.

She was asked to resign.

The stories about the couple in the Lincoln Journal Star and elsewhere had upset some of the organization’s donors, Smith said.

The couple isn’t naming the nonprofit because Fentress signed a settlement, Smith said.

Fentress was given four months’ pay in her settlement, and she received unemployment pay for a while, Smith said. The couple started a table-making business and took side jobs when they could.

* * *

As Smith and Fentress sat on their front porch on a recent Friday evening, talking about married life, the New York Legislature was busy legalizing same-sex marriage, making it the sixth state — and by far the most populous — to legalize same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage also is legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa, plus the District of Columbia.

Bambi Smith (left) and Sarah Fentress on their wedding day. (Courtesy photo)

“I think Nebraska will catch up eventually,” Fentress said. “I mean, because really — who cares who you love? It’s just amazing to me that something like this has to be an issue for people.”

After receiving their marriage license, Smith and Fentress married in Iowa on May 4, 2009 and had a wedding in Lincoln on June 11 with family and friends.

But when they went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to change Smith’s name on her driver’s license to Fentress, they were rejected. Their Iowa marriage license was not valid in Nebraska.

“It sucks,” Smith said. “I don’t want to move out of Nebraska. … Why should I have to move out of my state to validate something that should have been validated in my home state?”

The couple says they plan to renew their marriage vows in the future.

“I think we had a thought that within five years of the time that we got married maybe things would change a little bit,” Fentress said.”

“And it would be completely legal,” Smith said.

* * *

Smith and Fentress were surprised by some of the negative comments they read after the story about them ran online.

“We’re just two people who’ve known each other for 25 years that want to be together for the rest of our lives,” Smith said.

Bambi Smith (left) leads her partner, Sarah Fentress into the elevator after the couple applied for a marriage license at the Pottawattamie County Courthouse on April 27, 2009. (Photo courtesy Lincoln Journal Star)

“I think that gay people should be able to get married because we deserve to be just as miserable as the rest of the world,” she said, laughing.

The couple says they have never endured snide comments in person.

“We literally dance in the grocery store, in the aisle,” Smith said. “We hold hands when we go out in public.”

Between the kids, the dogs, the cat, the mortgage and yard work, “we’re a very stereotypical gay gamily,” Fentress said, laughing.

Both women are active in the 12-step recovery community. Once a month their band, Not Sure, plays at a recovery jam.

Even though they’ve endured some hardships over the past two years, Fentress said, what’s important is they are happy.

“We still get on each other’s nerves, we holler, we fight and argue, but we still love each other,” she said. “And we know that.”

While the job loss was stressful on their family, Fentress was able to spend more time with Smith, their four children and her mother before she died.

“I’ve always been a really big believer that things happen for a reason,” Fentress said. “I went through so many emotions and stuff like that with everything that was going on in my life at that time — in our lives at that time — you try to stay as positive as you can.”

About a year later, Fentress got a job with another nonprofit in Lincoln. It doesn’t pay as much as her former job, but it gives her a steady paycheck and she likes the work and her co-workers.

“I can kiss Sarah goodbye there,” Smith said.

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