FARMINGTON — As the conversation over legalizing same-sex marriage continues nationwide, the local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is watching the discussion closely.

The debate in New Mexico centers around the state constitution's use vague language to refer to who can legally marry. Many assert that this ambiguity makes New Mexico the only state that neither expressly recognizes nor bans same-sex marriage or civil unions.

During the last Legislative session, a bill was introduced to amend the state constitution to state that a marriage license could not be denied on the basis of gender. The proposed amendment also stated that churches would not be required to recognize same-sex marriage.

If the bill had passed, it would have allowed voters to decide the issue during the November 2014 election. This bill was tabled, along with another bill that would allow voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to define a marriage as between one man and one woman.

Meanwhile, last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a lawsuit on behalf of two same-sex couples who are seeking marriage after a county clerk denied their marriage license application. It could take several years before the suit reaches the level of the state Supreme Court.

New Mexico has been intentional about not altering its constitution to treat same-sex couples differently, said Micah McCoy, communications manager for the ACLU's New Mexico office. He said that county clerks don't feel comfortable issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples until they get affirmation that it is legal.

"New Mexico is different from every other state in that there is no sort of constitutional provision or statutory law that either prohibits or explicitly allows same sex marriage," McCoy said. "It's somewhat of a gray area, and the ACLU is arguing that, as our constitution stands, same sex marriage is already permissible and same sex couples are already included. We just need the courts to clarify it."

McCoy sees the ambiguity in New Mexico's constitution as a positive reflection of the state's attitude toward equality.

"I think it's a statement of who we are as a state. We're a diverse state, and fairness and family are important to us. We're reluctant to treat others differently, and it's a good testament to our state," he said.

Long-time Farmington residents Greg Gomez and A.D. Joplin have been in a committed relationship for seven years, and they currently share a home.

Gomez, who has raised three foster children, works as an interior designer and is owner of Greg Gomez Designing and Consulting.
Demonstrators chant outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, March 26, 2013, as the court heard arguments on California’s voter approved ban
Demonstrators chant outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, March 26, 2013, as the court heard arguments on California's voter approved ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Joplin is completing his bachelor's degree in business from San Juan College and hopes to find work in the business field.

The couple said that they would like to get married. They are aware that they could travel to another state to get married and the marriage would be recognized in New Mexico.

"We've made the decision to wait until marriage becomes legal in New Mexico because we want to support this move," said Gomez. "After that happens, we'll take the step."

The couple named several reasons that they would like to be married. Beyond the union that marriage represents, people who are not married are subject to inheritance taxes after their partners' death. Married individuals are exempt from the tax, and their partner' possessions are automatically transferred to the surviving spouse. Another issue that gay couples grapple with is being unable to visit an ill partner in the hospital, Gomez said.

Joplin said there are steps gay couples can take to obtain the benefits afforded to married couples.

"There are ways to obtain the same legal protections that married people have, but it's a costly venture," he said. "You can go through a lawyer to get a trust and power of attorney set up, but most citizens couldn't afford to do it, as it costs about $1,500."

Joplin said that he doesn't necessarily want a marriage ceremony. He wants for him and Gomez to have the same rights as any other married couple.
In this June 17, 2008 file photo, A ring is placed on a finger during their wedding ceremony after obtaining a  marriage license at the San Diego County
In this June 17, 2008 file photo, A ring is placed on a finger during their wedding ceremony after obtaining a marriage license at the San Diego County Administration Building in San Diego. Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples had appointments to secure marriage licenses and exchange vows Tuesday, the first full day same-sex nuptials will be legal throughout California. On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court will begin hearing two days of cases involving gay marriage. (AP Photo/Chris Park, File)

"But I do not believe the religious community should be forced to perform marriage ceremonies," he said.

Gomez pointed out, however, that many gay couples do want a church wedding. He added that just because someone has come out as gay does not mean that he or she has given up their religion.

"(That religion) doesn't just go away," he said.

Many churches, though, are reluctant to offer marriages for gay couples.

The Rev. Tim Farrell at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Farmington said the Catholic Church believes homosexual marriage is wrong. Farrell refers to the recent joint statement made by New Mexico Bishops. Part of it states, "Protecting the institution of marriage from new definitions we believe guards this institution which is unique and irreplaceable."

"Nothing against people with homosexual tendencies, but marriage is an institution between a man and a woman. And sex any time outside of marriage is wrong," Farrell said.

The Rev. John Morgan, pastor of the Pinon Hills Community Church, said his church shares the same view as most evangelical churches, as well as of the Catholic Church.

"There's a rational and a theological argument about why (same sex marriage) is wrong," Morgan said. "There are basically two problems: we believe the absolute source of truth, the Bible, is clear about homosexual sex being non-moral behavior and marriage being between a man and a woman."

Morgan also states that the prospect of trying to make marriage equal for all people would lead to erosion of the institution of marriage.

"If you're going to unleash society from that foundation of truth and try to base marriage on making it equal for everyone, then you'd also have to allow bisexuals who want to marry both genders to get married. You'd then have to allow many other groups to marry, such as polygamists. The only way to make marriage completely equal to all people is to abolish it. That's where we see this heading," he said.

While Morgan said that he believes homosexuality is wrong, his church does welcome homosexuals and some gay people attend the church. If gay marriage is legalized in the state, however, Morgan said he would reject the validity of such a marriage and would view any such couple as still being unmarried.

If gay marriage does become legal, Morgan said he fears the government could sanction churches that choose not to perform gay marriages. He also fears that ACLU lawsuits could threaten the non-profit status of churches or bankrupt them.

Not all local pastors share that viewpoint.

"I support same sex marriage 100 percent," said the Rev. Joe Morris, pastor of the New Covenant United Methodist Church in Farmington. "I have no problem with it at all."

Morris said that he thinks the state unintentionally omitted gender when writing that part of the state constitution that referred to marriage. But he believes this ambiguity is exactly the way governments should deal with marriage.

"Right now in the United Methodist Church, I would be excommunicated if I performed a same sex marriage," he said. "I'm not going to test it because I do believe it will be legalized nationwide, anyway. I do think New Mexico will have a difficult time (with same sex marriage legalization) and will need the Supreme Court's help."

Morris is comforted that many in his profession share his view.

"I recently attended a seminar of United Methodist ministers, and every single one of them believed as I do. Not that they support homosexuality, but they don't think it's right to ask people to change who they are, or to leave the church because of who they are. We welcome everyone."

Aside from marriage, Joplin and Gomez provided insight into what it's like to be a committed homosexual couple in a conservative region like San Juan County.

One of the hardest things, they said, is feeling restricted in how they express themselves in public. Doing things most heterosexual couples take for granted, like holding hands, is not an option.

"We find ourselves having to assess every situation and every crowd to determine if we will be OK being ourselves, or if we need to blend in and not say anything," said Joplin.

Another problem both men identified is the lack of resources in the county for the local GLBT community.

There are, however, two groups that provide direct support to the population. Joplin and Gomez are involved in the groups, both of which are sponsored by San Juan College.

One group, called SJC Out, is open to students and community members. The group meets weekly and hosts social events such as bowling, movie nights and dances.

The Safe Zone Ally program provides additional advocacy and support for GLBT students. The group provides inverted rainbow-striped triangle stickers that staff can display on their office and classroom doors. The stickers send a message that a space is a "safe zone" for those who may be facing discrimination or who need support. The group also hosts monthly discussions on issues like employee rights and GLBT health concerns.

"I do believe that the college is a safe-haven for many in the GLBT community," said Chris Keating, a student activities specialist who helps coordinate both programs. "They feel comfortable on campus, and the general consensus is that it's safe here."

Nevertheless, Keating has talked to students who have experienced harassment and discrimination because they are gay. When it comes to the marriage issue, Keating said he has a hard time understanding why some would wish to restrict the rights of gays to marry.

"If a male wants to marry another male, what's the harm? It's not taking away someone else's rights," Keating said. "It's the right of the individual to choose, and when the government says he or she can't, that is taking away rights. The issue is not something that should be Democrat or Republican, not defined as black or white. In my personal opinion, it's what our government was founded on: allowing someone the right to choose."

Intervention specialist Ramsi Watkins also facilitates the college's support groups. Watkins said that for her, the same-sex marriage debate has recently touched a nerve.

Watkins, a bisexual woman, is planning her wedding next month to a man. She said her GLBT friends have been supportive of her impending marriage.

"It really makes me emotional, because I realized that as a bisexual person, it could easily have been a woman I'm marrying," she said. "But because I'm marrying a man, we didn't even pause to ask, "Can we get married?' Of course we can, and I realized how lucky we are. My fianc e and I have been together for two years, but some of my friends have been together for 14 years, and they can't do what we're doing. It's an emotional issue for me."

Despite the challenges of being homosexual in a conservative area, both Gomez and Joplin said they haven't experienced much overt discrimination in Farmington. Gomez, who does volunteer work with students at the college, tries to pass on a message of hope to those in the GLBT community.

"Some of the students are so afraid of past experiences. But my experiences here in the county have been positive. I tell them that they just have to give people a chance," he said.

Leigh Black Irvin can be reached at; 505-564-4610. Follow her on Twitter @irvindailytimes.