Guam Just Recognized Gay Marriage & It's The First US Territory To Do So — But Won't Be The Last

In a historic move, Guam recognized gay marriage Friday, making it the first U.S. territory to do so. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Frances M. Tydingco-Gatewood issued the decision after a morning hearing, stipulating that gay couples would be able to start applying for marriage licenses at 8 a.m. Tuesday. The move is a startling turnaround for a territory that, up until March, had never faced a lawsuit pursuing the right for LGBT couples to marry. In April, a couple came forward to demand exactly that. Now, less than two months later, gay couples in Guam have won the right to wed. The lightening-quick change begs the question, where do other U.S. territories stand on gay marriage? And could any of them follow in Guam’s footsteps?

Guam’s process towards gay marriage has seemingly been packed into the space of a few short weeks. In April, Loretta Pangelinan and Kathleen Aguero, both 28 years old, filed a lawsuit after the couple had been denied a marriage license. The women were the first same-sex couple ever to apply for a marriage license in the territory, and a Department of Public Health and Social Services clerk immediately rejected their application. “It doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic, but the law is going to prevent me from issuing a marriage license,” department director James Gillan said at the time. The couple then began preparing their case — unwilling to wait for the expected SCOTUS ruling this summer. “They want equality now, not later,” their attorney told The Guardian.

The government of Guam didn't put up much of a fight. Their attorneys issued a statement on May 18 that said, “should a court strike current Guam law, [the government] would respect and follow such a decision.” Pangelinan’s and Aguero’s legal argument was rooted in a decision made last year in favor of same-sex marriage, which was made in the ninth U.S. circuit court of appeals. Guam falls under the jurisdiction of the ninth circuit. Their attorneys stipulated that Guam must align with this former ruling, unless the imminent SCOTUS decision should determine otherwise.

“We are delighted with the news,” Aguero told the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) blog. “Actually, we’ve been waiting for nearly eight years to marry. We’re so happy that the time has finally come.” The publication adds that the historic decision may be just the beginning of LGBT rights reform on the island. Vice Speaker of the Guam Legislature and openly gay HRC member Senator Benjamin Cruz recently announced his plans to soon introduce bill that “would extend critical workplace protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression,” HRC reports.

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All of which is remarkable, especially considering a March Associated Press report that highlighted the sluggishness of the U.S. territories on the issue of marriage equality. Guam, that report noted, is a majority Roman Catholic territory, and one in which the church assisted to strike down a bill to recognize same-sex unions in 2009. That bill, too, had been an initiative of Senator Cruz. And its failure, and chronic lack of support from the LGBT community, clearly disheartened him. “Why should I be the only one that gets the nasty stares in church?” he is reported by AP as asking.

Prior to Friday’s decision, gay couples from Guam had often traveled abroad — to Hawaii or Washington State — to legally marry, according to The Guardian. Joseph Querimit, one half of a gay couple who had chosen to marry in Hawaii, told AP in March, “Born and raised on Guam, being Catholics, the upbringing, it's just not something you would go out there and flaunt.” Now, however, that all looks to have changed — at least in the eyes of the law.

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But the other U.S. territories, all similarly socially conservative contexts, look unlikely to make any changes — preferring to sit tight, and see whether SCOTUS rules that gay marriage is a constitutional right. (That decision will affect all of the territories as well as the states, although Mark Joseph Stern argues in Slate that the ruling may not bring immediate relief to the territories’ gay residents.) Attitudes may, however, slowly be shifting.

Puerto Rico is the only territory aside from Guam that has faced a gay marriage lawsuit — it was filed in 2014 by five couples, and a federal judge rejected the suit. U.S. District Court Judge Juan Perez-Gimenez said at the time that voters and legislators should determine the issues, rather than judges. That case is now under appeal at the first U.S. circuit court of appeals in Boston. In March, when that case was filed, Puerto Rico earned the praise of native son and territorial hero Ricky Martin by announcing they would no longer defend a law that banned same-sex couples from marrying.

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“The decision recognizes that all human beings are equal before the law,” Justice Secretary César Miranda said, as quoted by Reuters. “We believe in an equal society in which everyone enjoys the same rights.” Although the move paved the way for Puerto Rico to accept same-sex marriage, it did not actually in any material way alter gay couple’s current rights in the territory. That will be up to the first court of appeals, or SCOTUS.

The approach to gay marriage is less lukewarm, more heatedly opposed, in other territories. A member of the Virgin Island’s Senate drafted a bill that sought to legalize gay marriage last year, but the move was tremendously controversial, and occasioned a fiery backlash. According to Virgin Islands Daily News, clergy leaders in the territory organized rallies to denounce the bill as un-Christian. “We do not wish to be America's same-sex paradise,” New Vision Ministries Pastor James Petty of St. Thomas said. The bill has not advanced.

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Neither American Samoa nor the Northern Marianas recognize same-sex marriage, although there is no official ban in either territory. Galeai Tu'ufuli, one of American Samoa's chiefs and a member of the territory’s Senate, told AP in March, “Why test the waters now by introducing legislation to deal with this issue? Time will tell when and if this issue surfaces in the future.”

This year, the Northern Marianas’ Annual Attorney General’s Cup Speech Competition, held in April 2015, invited high school students to orate on the topic: “Should the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands allow marriages between two people of the same sex? Why or why not?”

In an indication of better things to come, six of the eight young contestants argued in favor of same-sex marriage. Only two argued against. The winner of the competition, Lee Ann Jastillana, passionately argued for the legalization of same-sex marriage. “This is real,” she said. “And this is unjust.”

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