A married gay couple’s visit to a driver’s licensing office highlights Georgia’s struggles with same-sex marriage after a landmark Supreme Court decision and creates an unlikely flash point in the gay rights debate.
It happened this month when newlywed Danielle McCollum visited the state Department of Driver Services office in Sandy Springs to try to add her wife’s last name to her driver’s license. The 24-year-old’s encounter led to a standoff between civil rights groups and government officials who say they’re restricted by the state’s gay-marriage ban.
“This could be a real significant moment in the fight for gay rights,” McCollum said.
Before we get there, some important context: McCollum and Shakira Tucker, her girlfriend of five years, wed in Massachusetts in July and returned to Georgia, where voters overwhelmingly supported a 2004 amendment banning gay marriage.
Tucker, a massage therapist who is also 24, headed to the Driver Services office in Sandy Springs in August to renew her license and change her last name to McCollum-Tucker. After consulting with the manager, she said she was granted the name change.
Encouraged, McCollum went to the same branch earlier this month to add Tucker’s last name to her license. But after a four-hour wait, the cosmetology student was told her name would not be changed despite producing the same certificate of marriage that Tucker had shown.
The department’s spokeswoman, Susan Sports, said she couldn’t comment on the particulars of the couple’s complaint. But she said in a statement that “the Georgia Constitution prohibits all state agencies from accepting same-sex marriage documentation for any purpose.”
McCollum sees it differently. Citing the Supreme Court’s June decision that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits, she said she’s “livid” she can’t also share the same last name as her wife on her state driver’s license.
“I was angry. I was shaking. It was probably the worst feeling I had ever had in my entire life. I told her they were discriminating against me,” she said. “I was shocked. I had never been openly discriminated against.”
Gay rights organizations see the denial as a state-sponsored insult.
“This is just another example of the indignities Georgia puts on gay and lesbian couples,” said Jeff Graham, the executive director of the gay rights group Georgia Equality. “I find it highly disturbing that an individual in Driver Services wouldn’t recognize that.”
Even the staunchest opponents of gay marriage question the decision. Georgia’s Christian Coalition says marriage should be strictly between a man and a woman. But the group’s president, Jerry Luquire, said he sees no problem with a name change.
“They can change their name legally for whatever reason as long as it’s not for fraudulent reasons, which in this case, it would not be fraudulent,” he said.
Driver’s licenses have become an increasingly important form of identification amid increased security after the 2001 terror attacks. Because it lists age, address and other vital data, a driver’s license is typically the primary form of ID accepted at airports and voting precincts, said Pat Pullar, a political consultant and chairwoman of the Clayton County Board of Election.
“The driver’s license really says who you are,” she said. “A name change shouldn’t make the driver’s license any less valid.”
The ID fight is unfolding against a changing backdrop. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released this week found that more Georgians now support gay marriage than oppose it due to growing support among younger residents and the changing viewpoints of nearly one-fifth of residents in recent years.
But those dynamics won’t translate into a new political push. Gay marriage supporters want to wait until they have a commanding majority before they revive their effort beneath the Gold Dome, and Gov. Nathan Deal has said he has no appetite to take up same-sex marriage any time soon.
Legislative leaders were mum on McCollum’s troubles, but state Rep. Karla Drenner, Georgia’s first openly gay state legislator, said she was exploring a possible fix.
“It’s a document. This shouldn’t be political,” said Drenner, a Democrat from Avondale Estates. “Take the politics out of it. This has nothing to do with same-sex marriage.”
The encounter was a political awakening for McCollum. She started an online petition that has already attracted thousands of signatures. She hopes it will be remembered as a significant victory for the gay rights movement.
“There’s no real reason to discriminate against us,” she said. “We just want to be treated fairly and respectably and equally.”