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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."
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.
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