30-year engagement for Iris Harrell, Ann Benson

Click pictures for larger images and captions.

By Selena Simmons-Duffin

It's a cool Tuesday afternoon in late July, and out the window, the sun washes over the blond hills of Portola Valley. Iris Harrell and Ann Benson sit on their living room couch, chatting, sipping apple juice, waiting. In the kitchen, the caterers prepare deviled eggs, Black Forest ham palmiers, and skewers of fresh mozzarella with tortellini.

Downstairs, their outfits hang in the closet: elegant, flowing pants with matching jackets. Iris, well known on the Peninsula as founder of Harrell Remodeling, even bought heels to gain those last few inches on Ann's 6-foot height. Tucked away in the women's desks, RSVPs are collecting.

After almost 30 years together, Iris and Ann are preparing to get married.

On Sept. 7, they will marry at Ladera Community Church, and then their home will fill with more than 150 guests for the wedding reception. There will be music, hors d'oeuvres, chatting. "We'll have a spread on the large table, and then servers coming through the guests," says Sandy Throne, the couple's wedding coordinator.

Soon, the caterers are ready with their samples. Ann and Iris move around the kitchen, tasting from each platter, delighting in the presentation and the flavors. Iris asks for wheat bread on the cocktail sandwiches. They try the iced tea.

By the end of the afternoon, the reception menu is set. That leaves only the meeting with the minister who will marry them — the last task after many weeks preparing for the wedding. They're almost ready.

'In our lifetime'

"We've always said, in our lifetime we'd like to be able to get married. In our lifetime," Ann says. Now they finally can: This past May, the California Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could marry.

They were married once before. In 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the city to start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, they were among the 4,000 couples who dropped everything to rush to the city hall. They waited in line two days before getting married. Ann said she found it so moving, she cried the whole way through.

A year later, the state Supreme Court ruled that the mayor had overstepped his authority, and all of those marriages were annulled.

This time, with the Supreme Court squarely behind the marriages, they're hoping they can stay married.

"The legal ramifications are really important," Iris says. "I get nervous — Ann has been in the hospital twice, and fortunately it's been here, and it was serious. If I'd been in Alabama, I'm not sure they would have let me in."

With the backing of the Supreme Court, the legal issues are much clearer than they were in 2004. But in November, Proposition 8 is on the ballot to redefine marriage in California as between a man and a woman. The couple set the date for September in case the initiative passes and same-sex couples can't marry after November.

"The fact that we haven't really been allowed to have our full civil rights is something that you learn to live with, but you always chafe at the bit," Iris says. "I'm hoping that Californians are really up to ... do the right thing by us." Polls in mid-July showed the opposition to Proposition 8 with a narrow lead.

Legal status, though important, is only a part of the decision to have a wedding. "We've done the 'go to the courthouse' thing. ... We just wanted to celebrate this," Ann says.

People are flying in from all over — from Los Angeles to Reno to Fort Worth. Their wedding will be the first time the couple has celebrated their relationship with their families. The women's brothers will walk them down the aisle, and each will say that their family blesses the relationship. For Iris, "There's something very profound about announcing that publicly."

At first sight

As they prepare for an event to celebrate their relationship, with help from family and friends, they both have come a long way from home.

"I came out at 18," says Ann. "It was in the '60s, and in the South." If parents or neighbors found out you were gay, "the least that you'd get is kicked out of college, and maybe out of your own family. And that still happens. But also, it was not unusual for you to be committed and have electroshock, if not lobotomy — I'm not kidding. This is what happened.

"There was no community — you thought you were the only one, and you're just as homophobic as anybody, because that's how you were raised. That's our legacy, and you have to undo that for yourself. Which gives me a lot of compassion for straight people who really don't get it, because that's how I was raised, too. I didn't get it either until I came out. And then, for me, it was totally natural. It's who I was."

A few states away, in Virginia and North Carolina, Iris was going through her own struggle. "When I realized I was gay, I thought, 'If God made me this way, then why is everybody so upset?' I haven't changed, I'm not immoral, I'm still the nice, responsible moral person that they knew. ... It's like, what changed?

"It made me start questioning everything. What else have I been told that's a lie?"

This spiritual questioning continued as Iris went on to earn a master's degree in education, and traveled from Virginia to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona to work as a school teacher there.

Meanwhile, she spent her evenings writing songs, and left the reservation to form a band a year and a half later. After five years on the road, the band broke up, and so did Iris and her girlfriend. "My business and my personal life fell apart at the same time," she says.

She called a lesbian couple she had met in Arizona who were living in Fort Worth, Texas. They invited her to come live with them while she recovered.

"They were incredibly comforting and nurturing," she says. "They told me I would meet a Texan woman and I would be happy for the rest of my life.

"And you know what? They were right!"

Two months after moving to Fort Worth, in the spring of 1979, Iris went to sing at a coffee house along with local lesbian performers. Her clothing was covered in glitter and sequins, the result of her traveling with the band for so many years. She put on some makeup, and feather earrings dangled through her long hair. "I looked like a lounge singer," Iris recalls, laughing. "Most people [there didn't look like that — they had blue work shirts on."

"She didn't look like anybody else there," Ann says. "She was beautiful. I thought, 'As soon as she figures out where she is, I'm going to be so embarrassed for her because she's obviously straight.' She never got embarrassed, so I never got embarrassed."

Iris was far from embarrassed — she was watching Ann on stage, singing Hank Williams and yodeling. "I was like, 'Whoa, she's for me.'"

"She's a fool for Hank Williams," Ann says. After the show, Iris went up to Ann. "She asked if we wanted to sing something together the next time we did something like this," Ann says. Iris assumed there would be a next time.

There would be. For the next seven years, they lived in Dallas together. There, in their house, Ann gave Iris an electric drill to hang up pots and pans, and Iris fell in love with construction. She got her contracting license, took design classes, and started her own business doing small jobs for friends and neighbors.

But the two women knew that Dallas wasn't the ideal place to settle permanently.

"When we were in Dallas, on Saturday night when we would go out [to restaurants, people would drop their forks and stop talking when we walked in ... they knew that two dykes had arrived," Iris says. "And that gets old. That really gets old. To get looked at like you're from Mars."

"It makes you feel kind of unsafe, too," Ann says.

In the summer, when it was too hot for Iris to do remodeling work, they would go on vacation. "Wherever we went I would say, 'We could move here.' Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., wherever," Ann recalls. "And she would just kind of laugh it off and say, 'Oh you don't really mean that, ha ha.' Then we'd go home for another year.

"So one year we took a train across the desert to L.A. and rented a car and went up Highway 1 until we got to Marin," she continues. "And in Marin, we had to buy sweats because it was cold in August." After years of living in Texas, Ann was tired of hot weather. This was the place.

"I said, 'We could move here,'" Ann says. "She still laughed and then she looked at me and said, 'If you really, really, really want to do it. ...' I was back here in two weeks with a resume."

Moving West

In 1985, they made the move to California, and bought a home in Whisky Gulch, Menlo Park. After the move, Iris also began her life's work of building and remodeling other people's homes. She founded Harrell Remodeling, and opened an office in Menlo Park that same year. Ann came into the company doing human relations and finance.

For seven years after that, they fell in love with the Peninsula, and the company grew. But on a trip to inspect the home of some friends in Portola Valley, Iris was captivated by the deer, the woods, the quiet. "We'd been living here seven years and I had never seen this area," Iris recalls. "I was like 'Wow, Ann, we should look at moving here.' We actually spent New Year's up here with those friends and were walking the hillside. That convinced her. A week later, this house came on the market."

When they moved in the winter of 1992, their home in Portola Valley Ranch had 10 bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, and no kitchen — it had been the developer's offices, and they had put up walls wherever they needed them.

The couple did some remodeling when they first moved in, but never got around to fixing it up the way they wanted.

While Harrell Remodeling moved to a bigger office in Mountain View, grew to 47 employees, and found customers all over the Bay Area, Ann and Iris' home still had a temporary kitchen. Finally, they decided to make it into exactly the home they wanted.

Now, after two years with workers in the house all the time, the remodel is complete, and they have it to themselves. Ann retired last December, and the firm is moving to employee ownership — a way to pass on the company to the next generation.

"I don't have dreams of going and spending three months in Europe," Iris says. "I don't live to be somewhere else. I love being here with Ann and experiencing our home."

Going to the chapel

It's a hot Thursday afternoon, two days after tasting the fresh mozzarella and cocktail sandwiches, and Iris and Ann are at the final frontier of pre-wedding preparation: They're meeting the minister.

For everyone in the small, dim room at Ladera Community Church, the wedding will be a first. The Rev. Alfred Williams has never married a same-sex couple. Ann and Iris have never had a wedding. They meet today to decide the wording of the service, and get to know each other a bit.

They talk, the afternoon draws on as they discuss their histories, their plans. They talk about the questionnaire that the Rev. Williams gave them to fill out — over a hundred questions asking things such as: What are the roles around the house? If you could change one thing about your partner, what would it be?

And the all-important: Do you think that marriage will change your commitment to each other?

"If it changes it might be because our family might change for the good, going through a wedding with us," Ann says. "And that will change us.

"When you are affirmed by society, that's an important moment; a serious, wonderful, moving thing."

But, she says, "maybe you don't know until you go through it."

  • The ongoing legal battle over same-sex marriage.

  • Comments

    Posted by please, a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
    on Aug 13, 2008 at 9:59 am

    A MARRIAGE is between a MAN and a WOMAN...PERIOD.

    Posted by hetero, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
    on Aug 13, 2008 at 10:27 am

    Mine is, and I wouldn't marry otherwise, but a marriage is a wonderful pledge between two people who love each other. I am happy for this couple.

    Posted by Ima Breeder, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
    on Aug 13, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Congratulations and much happiness to Iris and Ann. It's nice to see good relationships celebrated in the media.

    Posted by elkeel, a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
    on Aug 13, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Lesbians! Yay!

    Posted by Debra Shapiro, a resident of another community
    on Aug 13, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Congratulations to Iris and Ann! My partner and I have been together for 14 years and we had a big wedding before it was legal...but it cost like a real wedding. It made a real difference to our families; They had more respect for us as a couple. Marriage is definitely NOT just between and man and a woman. A family is a family ,and many of us need legal protection in this society.

    Posted by Kate O'Hanlan, MD, a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
    on Aug 13, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    This equal access to marriage is good for America according to The American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, and American Psychoanalytic Association. The AMA itself confirms that sexual orientation is natural, biologically induced, morally neutral, immutable, neither contagious nor learned, and has no bearing on an individual's ability to form deep and lasting relationships, to parent children, to work, or to contribute to society; the APA, APsyA, AAP, and APA also endorsed civil marriage for same sex couples because marriage strengthens the mental and physical health and the longevity of couples, and provides greater legal and financial security for children, parents, and seniors.

    Posted by Chino Blanco, a resident of another community
    on Aug 14, 2008 at 2:55 am

    This Thursday, August 14th, from 5:30 p.m - 8:30 p.m. at 2020 Main Street, Irvine, California:

    ACTION ALERT: Tell the Right-Wing Consultants NO to Prop 8!

    Web Link

    Posted by Margaret, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
    on Aug 14, 2008 at 7:38 am


    Posted by Brian, a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
    on Aug 14, 2008 at 7:40 am

    It is wonderful that this devoted couple will finally be given the legal and family recognition they so clearly deserve. We must not allow Proposition 8 to make this impossible for other couples.

    Posted by voting, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
    on Aug 14, 2008 at 11:43 am

    PROPOSITION 8 HAS MY VOTE!!!!! These people are wrong! Gays are not normal. Gays and Lesbians should NOT be allowed to marry. It makes a mockery of marriage. I now pronounce you wife and wife? Husband and husband? Ridiculous!! Enough of this Liberal crap...Only in this left wing left coast do we have to put up with this!

    Posted by voting too, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
    on Aug 14, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Well, voting, I guess I'll be canceling out your vote. I'll think of you as I gleefully Just Say No.

    By the way, this lovely left-wing coast isn't even the first state to acknowledge that gays have a constitutional right to marriage. Do you even attempt to keep up with the news? I was able to legally marry in this state decades ago. It's about time other couples daring to make a formal commitment to each other "in sickness and in health" are allowed to do the same legally.

    Posted by More Voting, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
    on Aug 14, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Congratulations to this and other gay couples. I can remember when people of different races could not marry, in this state. It is hardly a left coast liberal thing. But it is a civil rights thing.

    How does this make a mockery of marriage? Why shouldn't two people who love each other be given legal and communal status? That would seem to speak well of marriage.

    Posted by Been there,done that, a resident of another community
    on Aug 14, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Marriage sucks! Be happy you two, don't mess it up with vows-you'll see.

    Posted by Glenda, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
    on Aug 14, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    In the wise words of Jon Stewart, If you don't like gay marriage, don't have one.
    There's no reason the state should deny civil rights to people based on homophobic lunacy.
    I hope Prop. 8 goes down in flames.

    Posted by Vox, a resident of another community
    on Aug 14, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    Voting, you seemed to miss the fact that gay marriage is legal in Massachusets, which continues to be located on the right coast.

    Posted by ticked, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
    on Aug 14, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    "The Almanac runs obituaries in its news section on people who lived in, or played a prominent role in, Atherton, Menlo Park, Portola Valley and Woodside" ...and two lesbians getting married IS news? Do they play a prominent role in one of our cities? Why is this story news and more worthy of space in this paper, while obituaries notifying the community of a friend or loved one's passing are not?

    Posted by Splitsville, a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
    on Aug 15, 2008 at 2:06 am

    To Ticked - Please explain what obituaries has to do with whether two lesbians marrying is news. We don't see the conection.

    Posted by HillbillyHell, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
    on Aug 15, 2008 at 2:09 am that lesbians & gays can legally marry they can be as miserable as the rest of us.

    Posted by BeetleNut, a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
    on Aug 15, 2008 at 2:12 am

    Divorce lawyers throughout California are rejoicing.

    Posted by sickened, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
    on Aug 15, 2008 at 9:53 am

    This is so wrong for a multitude of reasons. What these people do behind closed doors is one thing. I resent it being thrown in my face everywhere I turn. Marriage is between a man and a woman. For those misguided folks that seem to think this is OK it is not. Read the Bible. It is morally and ethically wrong. It is disgusting to see these people "raise" children. How wrong is that to have a child grow up with two lesbians or two homosexuals. Confusing to say the least. Proposition 8 will pass. For those who think this is right, and for those who commit this very wrong will get yours when you meet your maker.

    Posted by Glenda, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
    on Aug 15, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I'm sure Jesus doesn't appreciate you speaking on his behalf, "sickened."
    Why don't you try giving the New Testament a whirl and see what He says about homosexuals? (hint: nothing)

    And what's so confusing for kids about having two moms or two dads? I'd say it's worse for a child to grow up in a household run by bigots.

    Posted by hetero, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
    on Aug 15, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Many children grow up with more than one dad or mom because the first marriage didn't work out. Do these comments mean that those children are doomed, too?
    I really like Jon Stewart's advice mentioned earlier. A gay marriage is not for me so I don't have one.

    Posted by Palo Altan, a resident of another community
    on Aug 15, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Mazel Tov!! (Congratulations)

    Posted by sickened, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
    on Aug 18, 2008 at 9:43 am

    This is sick...wrong...immoral...and disgusting. Why on earth would the Almanac put these two Dykes on the front cover like they are doing something noble??? It is anything but. I will never pick up another Alamanac ever again...neither will any of my friends. We are all horrified that this type of behavior was glorified.

    Posted by good riddance, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
    on Aug 18, 2008 at 10:13 am

    Don't stop there Sickened, take the entire klan back to Kansas where stadium sized crowds gather to judge and condemn others...what does that book say about judging again...?

    There was a day when one would be struck down just for speaking the name of Yaweh. Now thousands of people gather in stadiums and actually talk as if they are he...

    I guess we will see who gets what when we meet that maker...

    Posted by Sad, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
    on Aug 18, 2008 at 10:30 am

    What a pity that Sickened has been made so sick by his/her fear, inner conflicts and unwillingness to actually practice the Christian principles of love and compassion he/she professes to embrace. Isn't it the bible that says "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"?

    Hope you feel better soon, Sickened, but I'm not optimistic. You don't appear to be the soul-searching type.

    Posted by Valerie Frederickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
    on Aug 27, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Congratulations to two hard working, generous local business owners on their upcoming marriage. For me, as a heterosexual, married, Christian woman, it is not my place to judge, but to show God's love. I think that Iris and Ann have done that continuously through their leadership as employers, and as active members of the local business community. I'm very glad that they, too, can now have the wonderful institution of marriage that us straight people have been allowed to have. Best wishes for many, many happy years!

    Posted by Old Timer, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
    on Aug 29, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    Thanks Valerie. My faith in Menlo Park residents has been restored.

    Posted by ex-resident, a resident of another community
    on Sep 12, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Hurrah for Iris & Ann. These lovely women have been committed to each other for decades, and it is about time that they can make it legal and have the advantages of other married people.

    I wish them many more years of happiness and hope they are lucky enough to avoid all the small minded people who reside in our communities. I am an ex-resident of both Menlo Park and Woodside, and hope the bigots there are in the minority.


    Oh, and I hope the Almanac keeps up the great human interest stories of it's residents.

    Posted by Virgil, a resident of Atherton: other
    on Sep 15, 2008 at 11:19 am

    Amor vincit omnia.

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