By Lauren Rowello
In a video that Ash and Grayson Hardell uploaded to their popular YouTube channel, Ash greets viewers by explaining that then-White House hopeful Donald Trump was gaining in the polls, then announces, “So I think Grayson and I might apply for a marriage license tonight — you know, just in case.” The Minneapolis, Minnestota-based pair giggles as Grayson Googled “how to get gay-married” in their state. It was November 3, 2016, just five days before President Trump’s eventual victory against Hillary Clinton.
The video is light-hearted, filled with smiles and romance, but the decision to move their wedding date from April 2017 to November 2016 was born from concern about the harm Trump’s administration could cause for queer people. The couple explained that they started dating before marriage equality was law — and that the possibility of suddenly having that right revoked was too great a risk. Despite losing money previously spent on deposits and other arrangements for the April event, the pair became one of many queer couples pursuing legal recognition for their relationship before conservatives could take away their ability to do so.
In the U.S., marriage offers protections and freedoms that couples who aren’t wed can’t access. Ash needed the financial security and health-care benefits afforded by marriage so they could leave their job to pursue graduate school. The couple also wanted the ability to file taxes jointly, to visit and make decisions during a medical emergency or procedure, and to reduce barriers during family planning. “We thought, ‘We need to put everything in place while we still can,’” Grayson tells NewNowNext.
Ash describes the past four years as a “pressure” pot, explaining they’ve taken a break from posting on YouTube because they needed to prioritize their mental health after dealing with transphobia and backlash. “I think I’ve learned that our love is genuine and beautiful — and that’s something worth fighting for,” they tell NewNowNext. “A lot of [problematic] rhetoric has become loud and inflammatory over the last four years. That just showed us how strong our love is, and how much we can resist.”
Although many of the Hardells’ family members were supportive of their marriage, some relatives didn’t understand the need to move the wedding date and claimed it was an overreaction. Beth and Jen McDonough of Meadville, Pennsylvania, initially wed in secret after hearing about clerks who denied marriage certificates to queer people, as Kim Davis did in 2015. Jen tells NewNowNext that she felt it was just a matter of time before the Supreme Court would try to overturn marriage equality and still worries that this right is at risk with the Court’s conversative majority and justices who don’t support the law.
The now-former administration inflicted various hardships for LGBTQ people. Some of Trump’s most infamous actions were taken specifically against the transgender community: He reinstated a ban on transgender people serving in the military and then quickly revoked Obama-era guidances that protected transgender students from discrimination in schools. He offered religious conservatives a “license to discriminate” by making it easier for medical providers, business owners, and government workers to cite religious conscience when refusing to serve queer people. The administration continued to attempt to erase queer identity by eliminating terminology and questions about LGBTQ people and relationships on the 2020 census. Queer people — whose identities often intersect with other marginalized experiences — were often doubly impacted as the Trump administration cut budgets for programs that specifically aided the queer community in addition to imposing hardships on other marginalized groups, such as immigrants, those who experience housing and food insecurity, and those who lack access to health care.
President Joe Biden’s administration is already working to undo four years worth of damage through two queer-affirming executive orders. But Beth believes the work is far from over. “I want [the Biden administration] to go an extra step to put protections in place so those things can’t happen again,” she tells NewNowNext. She and Jen hope Biden will enact universal health care, permanently preserve reproductive rights and bodily autonomy in medical settings, pursue stronger protections for transgender people, and listen more closely to the needs of marginalized people.
The pair refused to maintain relationships with Trump-supporting family members after feeling they couldn’t remain connected to people who wouldn’t advocate for the basic rights of others. Beth hasn’t spoken to her mom since 2017. “I’m devastated that this happened,” she admits, “but I’m grateful to see people’s true colors.”
Moving forward, Beth adds that those who want to reconcile with her will need to demonstrate that they’re doing real work to not only apologize, but learn and change. While Trump was in power, the McDonoughs leaned on community members who are queer and marginalized to find strength in solidarity and became closer with their daughter’s co-parents as tensions rose between other family members. “We’ve just kind of leaned in and circled together,” she says.
Although the Hardells and McDonoughs have no regrets about rushing to marry, Erica Reese of Toledo, Ohio, believes she and her ex-wife got married the day after the election for the wrong reasons. “We just got caught up in it all, and I’m a spontaneous person,” she confesses to NewNowNext. “It felt like a way to stick it to Trump supporters — not a great reason to get married.” The couple divorced in 2018.
Reese says that she jumped into that relationship too quickly after coming out later in life, an experience shared by other LGBTQ people who are excited to celebrate their queer identities for the first time. “I didn’t consider who would be right for me,” she explains. “I just wanted to be with a woman.” She believes that if the couple hadn’t rushed into marriage in response to the election, they likely would have broken up before ever tying the knot.
The experience taught her the importance of healing from trauma, underlining that she needed to confront the homophobia and religious bigotry she encountered while she was younger in order to get to know herself as an individual before she could enter a new relationship. In the months following her divorce, she found a sense of calm away from political tension in the U.S. by exploring nature and bird-watching, then learning to navigate hardships on her own.
Reese believes that in order to heal the nation, people must demand action from the elected officials who represent them. The LGBTQ community can’t treat Democratic politicians as though they’re infallible just because they seem more pro-LGBTQ than the previous administration. “For a lot of queer and marginalized people, it’s been a rough four years,” she says. A change in leadership doesn’t erase that truth, nor does it erase concerns about prejudice and hate from ordinary Americans. “People are still scared,” she admits. “I’m still so scared about how much bigotry has come out of the woodwork.”