SALT LAKE CITY– Derek Kitchen and Moudi Sbeity are gay and in love and not married. They want to be married, and they could have been married, except it wouldn’t have been exactly right. Kitchen and Sbeity like to do things right.
A year ago, with two other couples — Kate Call and Karen Archer, who were married in Iowa, and Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge — Kitchen and Sbeity sued the state of Utah for the right to wed and won a blockbuster ruling in December that shook the national legal landscape on same-sex marriage.
District Court Judge Robert Shelby wrote that Utah’s 2004 ban on gay marriage “denies its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demeans the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason.” Arguments in the case were heard just blocks from Salt Lake’s Mormon Temple Square, where Latter Day Saints sites of worship and iconic office towers outshine nearby government buildings, testifying to the church’s secular power. Shelby, a Republican whose 2012 nomination to the bench was enthusiastically supported by the state’s Republican U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, had taken up and run with the U.S. Supreme Court decision issued five months earlier in United States v. Windsor. That decision struck down sections of the Defense of Marriage Act, inspiring an instantly classic dissent from anti-gay-marriage Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in which he bitterly predicted sweeping legal consequences. Shelby’s decision brought those consequences to life in one of the most conservative states in country. It was the first federal decision handed down on gay marriage in the post-Windsor era and it set off what now looks like a domino effect in federal courts around the country, where eight of eight decisions have stacked up that mirror Shelby’s decision in finding marriage bans unconstitutional.
“Shelby’s ruling signaled the momentum that has built in the courts and in the public. It was so deep and rich in the way it reflected the logic of Windsor and so eloquent in the way it made the case for equality,” Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, told the Independent. “It’s the first case in the next chapter of the movement,” he said, where federal appeals courts are forced to weigh in on the issue and set up what will likely be a defining U.S. Supreme Court challenge.
Indeed, Utah’s attorney general’s office did its part by appealing the ruling to the U.S. Tenth-Circuit Court, asking for an expedited process given the basic and personal nature of state’s marriage laws and the number of people they affect every day. The court took up the appeal and granted the request for a speedy resolution. A three-judge panel will hear the case in Denver on April 10. The panel’s decision would affect laws in all of the states within its jurisdiction, including in Colorado, where a state ban on gay marriage is already being challenged on several fronts.
But things were already moving fast on the ground in Utah. Between Shelby’s December 20 decision and the U.S. Supreme Court stay that suspended it 17 days later, there was what residents describe as a sort of movie-style slow-motion period during which more than 1,300 same-sex couples streamed into clerks offices throughout the state to get hitched.
“That was such a celebration. We loved that — all those couples and the feeling in the air,” says Kitchen, sitting next to Sbeity on the couch in their downtown living room.
“But no,” Kitchen says. They both nod. “Those dark walls of a clerk’s office, that’s not where we saw it happening.”
Kitchen and Sbeity plan to get married at the downtown farmer’s market, which is the center of the local community they treasure and the place where their small business — making and selling their own Laziz brand Middle Eastern spreads — first took off.
“We’ll do it in the middle of the market,” says Sbeity. He’s thinking out loud. “In October, on the anniversary of when we first met, when the colors are so rich… Some white chairs at the center, for relatives.”
“The parking would be bad,” Kitchen adds. “We could tell people to ride bikes.”
Sbeity smiles at the thought, then looks off at nowhere in particular.
“Tuxedoes?” I ask.
“Suits,” says Sbeity.
“Suits,” says Kitchen.
We are driving through their neighborhood in their gray Prius. The sky is so evenly blue it looks like it was painted onto the windows. The mountains ringing the city are frosted with snow. Bike riders are wearing T-shirts, and the dog sitting right up against me in the back seat is Goji, named after a raisin-like berry from China — the latest popular superfood. A tawny Australian Shepherd, Goji is a perfect dog. He walks beside us without a leash everywhere we go and never barks.
“Greenspace,” says Kitchen. For 10 minutes, he and Sbeity have been describing in detail another urban renewal plan in the works for this part of town. “Here,” he says pointing to the middle of wide 900 South Street. Space for trees and grass and for bike-riding and walking will apparently surround a streetcar line that Kitchen says will connect the developing east and trendy west ends of the downtown Salt Lake City street.
Kitchen and Sbeity seem to have something to say about every shop, warehouse, empty space we pass. They know who owns them and who wants to own them. They go to city-planning and local-business meetings.
“We feel like they really listen to us as small-business owners,” says Kitchen. He thinks Salt Lake has benefited by embracing a local-first policy. The city weathered the recession relatively well because so many construction projects downtown kept people working. He and Sbeity are grateful for their supportive community of local-business owners and the city programs designed to encourage entrepreneurship through low-interest and development loans.
“We could never have done what we have done without this community,” Kitchen says about their business. “We got a lot of encouragement and we give a lot of encouragement.”
Kitchen, 25, and Sbeity, 26, started Laziz two years ago after making healthy meals for a friend looking to change his diet — and after then having friends of friends and others ask about the hummus they included in their weekly deliveries. Sbeity grew up in Beirut and missed real Lebanese-style hummus, made simply from garbanzo beans, tahini, lemon, garlic and salt. Laziz hummus is creamy and somehow smoky and prepared fresh every day by Kitchen, Sbeity and their one employee, a friend named Daniel. The tahini comes by the pallet in buckets from Lebanon because, Sbeity says, it’s the tahini that makes the difference. The three of them cook in a mostly solar-powered kitchen space doing a semi-silent dance. They nod to one another in their matching red chef jackets and skull caps, moving tables here and there, handing each other large bowls of ingredients, wiping counter tops and slapping labels on containers.
The Laziz space and the apartment across the courtyard where Kitchen and Sbeity live are part of a high-tech complex made by a local design firm. There are solar panels over the parking spaces and on the roofs. The bottom floors are ringed with start-up businesses –- software and communications shops, a talent agency, a tattoo parlor. People stop outside Laziz to say hi at a regular clip.
“The compost service is a local business, too. There was none before,” says Kitchen.
We’re standing in the community garden behind the apartment where he’s watering seeds buried in rows of dirt. He tells me about a friend who has started a tea business and another who sells chocolate. He says that the company that owns the complex where they live sold the empty lot next door to a nonprofit that helps homeless youth. He’s proud that residents of the complex supported the idea whole-heartedly.
Then Kitchen’s phone beeps — as it’s always beeping — and he looks at it instinctively. It’s something to do with work. He’s checking stock at the retail outlets that sell their products. He and Sbeity are also talking to local T-shirt businesses and posting Instagram and Facebook photos of themselves modeling prototype Laziz “hummusexual” tees. Their phones are buzzing with comments about the shirts.
There are probably several limited categories of people who would have decided last year to sue Utah to lift its ban on gay marriage. It struck me very soon after meeting Kitchen and Sbeity that they belong to one distinct category of that kind of people: They’re part of a “millennial” population connected in a digitally enhanced way that no humans have ever experienced before and who rely for almost everything that matters on a network of peers who embrace a do-it-yourself ethic. They’re believers. They’ve seen it work, from creating mobile phone-based taxi services and a music-consumer revolution to developing green-energy alternatives and effecting sweeping social change. They see opportunities to make a difference for the better all around them and all the time.
Their legal team, too, clearly saw something they were looking for in Kitchen and Sbeity when they all met a little more than a year ago, before the suit was filed. Mark Lawrence, director at Salt Lake-based pro-gay marriage group Restore our Humanity, introduced the couple to lead counsel Peggy Tomsic of Magleby & Greenwood. Just two weeks after the meeting, the lawyers filed the suit: [Derek] Kitchen, et al., v. [Gov. Gary] Herbert.
“I think they saw that we were serious people, that it seemed obvious we were ready for the next step in our relationship, and that it was only the law stopping us from taking that step,” Sbeity says.
It’s a very contemporary love story. They met four years ago online. Sbeity was studying economics and philosophy at Utah State University in Logan, 50 miles north of Salt Lake City. He had started a blog. “Typical college stuff, musings, you know, very in-my-own-head explorations about life,” he says.
Kitchen found the blog, liked it and, based on the author photo, thought Sbeity looked cute. Kitchen wrote comments under the posts at first and then they took the conversation onto a gay chat site. Then Kitchen drove up to meet Sbeity and they started dating long distance before moving in together. Kitchen went with Sbeity to visit family in Beirut for three weeks. They took a three-month hitch-hiking/couch-surfing trip through Europe. They started their business and moved into a new apartment. They furnished it sparsely with a few choice Mad Men-era pieces. Then they got a dog.
“You know,” says Sbeity, pointing first up toward their apartment and then to Goji walking in front of us in the courtyard outside. “It happens. We have furniture and paintings on the walls. You get older. You become adults.”
Kitchen and Sbeity feel lucky to have found each other. They say it was fate. They have spoken to a lot of reporters in the last few months, accepting that being open about their relationship is part of the work of winning the case.
Still, during the two days I spent with the couple, I was the one who initiated the lion’s share of conversation on the topic. They’re not mushy. They don’t hold hands.
“If you can travel together, if you can start and run a business together, if you can survive all the tensions that go with that and get through conflicts, that’s a relationship, and that takes practice,” Kitchen says.
They admit they got into a fight just before I arrived. When I ask what the fight was about, they have to think about it. The moment hangs awkwardly in the air. Then Kitchen smiles and his face flushes slightly and he says Sbeity had given him a look while they were preparing the hummus that morning. Kitchen was picking up something heavy and Sbeity shot eye daggers at him and asked if Kitchen was going to carry the thing, whatever it was, all by himself.
I say I’m confused. What was the fight about, exactly? Kitchen elaborates. It was just that he felt some criticism in the look, like he was doing a Derek thing or being a certain Derek way that irked his boyfriend. Sbeity shakes his head and says he was just concerned. They both laugh. I don’t pretend or even expect to fully understand. It’s a couple’s fight, after all.
“Real couples fight. We do,” says Sbeity. “You see things differently but then you get through it and it builds a stronger foundation.”
They are both, as the saying goes, children of divorce.
Sbeity was born in Texas, where his mom was visiting relatives. They moved when he was an infant back to Beirut, where went to an American school and learned English and French. His parents divorced when he was 12. “Divorce in an Islamic court,” he says. “It was so much drama. For two years there was terrible fighting and defamation among family and friends.” Given the turmoil, Sbeity’s mom sent him to Sandy, Utah, where his aunt still lives. He went back to Beirut a year later, when he was 16. He was miserable. He was attending the sixth school of his adolescent life. He had no friends. He stuttered.
Kitchen’s parents also divorced when he was young. His mom remarried and Kitchen struggled in his teen years to get along with her husband. He lost that battle and moved in with his father at age 16. His dad was struggling with addiction at the time and wasn’t around much. “It probably wasn’t the healthiest environment for a kid to live in, but it’s what I wanted,” Kitchen says. “It gave me freedom.”
“We shouldered a lot burden for our age. We were just kids,” says Sbeity. “We were 16 years old and on our own. Most kids don’t have to do it that way.”
“The thing is, now we enjoy tremendous support from our families,” says Kitchen. “That’s so important. It has not been an issue. I think that’s the lesson, that’s what matters.”
Legal analysts agree that traditional left-right politics are less reliable than ever when it comes to marriage cases, given a legal landscape that has tilted heavily toward equal rights in the last year. Court rulings against state marriage bans have piled up in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia – states that rival Utah as bastions of conservative politics and culture.
Kitchen admits he’s biased, but said it was clear to him during arguments in Judge Shelby’s courtroom — speaking just as an observer without a legal degree — that one side had a lot more at stake.
“Our lawyers were so passionate,” he says, speaking especially about Tomsic, who is a lesbian and who Kitchen says married her longtime partner just hours after the Shelby ruling came down in December. “This is her life. She lives this. The case matters in a way I think it can’t matter to the attorney general’s office.”
Kitchen remembers the feeling in 2008 when Salt Lake City’s gay-rights community came out to protest the financial and on-the-ground political support the Mormon Church provided to help pass Proposition 8, the now-overturned gay-marriage ban in California.
“People were so angry. The protest snaked around Temple Square. It was huge. It was a turning point for the gay community here,” he says.
National Center for Lesbian Rights Legal Director Shannon Minter says that, whatever happens in Denver, the Kitchen lawsuit already has become a similar landmark event in Utah history.
“There has been an evolution since we filed last March. There was a lot of uncertainty at first. Then came the Windsor ruling and there was hope. Then came the Shelby ruling and there was elation… That ruling changed the community in Utah forever. They’re never going to go back to quietly accepting discrimination again.”
The Tenth Circuit will hear Kitchen v. Herbert a week before it hears Bishop v. Smith, a similar case from Oklahoma.
There are by one count currently 60 gay-marriage cases wending their way through the nation’s courts. Many observers predict that, given the frenetic activity, the U.S. Supreme Court soon will decide to take one up and legalize gay marriage coast to coast. Others say that, given the uniformity of the rulings, the Supreme Court may not even have to weigh in on the matter for it to become the law of the land — and that federal court precedent will be enough.
I ask Kitchen and Sbeity how they feel about their new legal and gay-rights celebrity and what they might do with it. They say the groups they’re working with in Salt Lake take a global vision toward equality and so they think there will be opportunities down the line to always be involved.
“I think there will be ways to be activists in the future and ways to help educate people,” says Kitchen. “We look forward to that.”
Talking about their business earlier, Sbeity said that expanding their customer base entailed educating consumers on what makes food healthy. It takes time, he said, but it’s worth it because you develop long-lasting loyalty that helps win over more customers.
Kitchen shares the story of his dad, who is deeply supportive of their relationship and the lawsuit, but who commented at the bottom of an op-ed his son penned for The Colorado Independent that he “fully supported [his] son’s choice.”
“I explained to him that being gay isn’t a choice, you know, that there’s an important distinction there. He was with me with his heart, but not there yet in his head… I think that’s what all this is about in part — an opportunity to bring people along, to come to new understandings.”
At Harmons Grocery store in Salt Lake City’s bustling downtown, Kitchen and Sbeity shuffle the Laziz spread containers in their section of the deli cases, straightening them out, pulling them forward, spinning them so the labels face front. Their products clearly have been selling well. Harmons employees, shoppers and people eating at lunch tables wave and stop and talk. “How’s business going?” “How’s the case going?”
Harmons customers are the same basic crowd that shops at the downtown farmer’s market. Kitchen and Sbeity sell a lot of spread here. Everyone seems to know who they are – and what they’re fighting for.
I think about myself at their age, some of the people I dated, and I ask Sbeity and Kitchen how they feel about the fact that their relationship has in effect become a cause for a lot of people.
“I don’t feel any pressure about that, really, until maybe I think specifically about it,” Kitchen says.
Sbeity seems to take Kitchen’s comments as a cue. He is thinking about it. When his eyes meet mine, they don’t look away and they don’t blink.
“I know what you mean: we could split up. Things like that happen,” he says slowly. “The case isn’t about us being the perfect couple. We’re not the perfect couple. But shouldn’t we have the same right as every one else to try to be? And the same right to fail?”