I was at a friend’s engagement party when they first caught my eye. I enjoyed watching them because it was clear that they absolutely adored each other and relished each other’s company. They laughed and talked to each other and held hands and kissed like teenagers. But they were not teenagers. Newlyweds Leia and Irene Burks married last year, nearly two years after they first met through Match.com. Both women, who work in law enforcement (Irene for Prince George’s County, Maryland and Leia for the federal government), were interviewed in the documentary, The New Black. The film, which premiered on PBS’ Independent Lens on Sunday, June 15, explores the fight for marriage equality in African-American churches and communities all across the country. Below we talk with the Burks, who reside in Bowie, Md., about the film and how they became a family:
Black Lesbian Love Lab (BL3): Why did you two agree to participate in the documentary?
Irene: We agreed to do the documentary because it was an extension of my work as an activist for marriage equality. A few years ago, I don’t remember where or who, someone asked if I would be interested in sharing my story of being a military veteran and a police officer, a servant to my country and my county, and how marriage inequities made me feel. Next thing I know, I am speaking before Maryland [lawmakers], attending briefings at the White House and working on a national project with the Department of Justice for the sake of equality in general. Leia and I are well respected at work, admired by our friends and supported by our families—something that many LGBT folks don’t have, particularly black LGBT folks. We are able to be public and open and by this point, news media had contacted us asking us to show the “gay family” side of [the freedom to marry question] on the [Maryland] ballot, and we have kids who were thrilled at the thought of being in a movie.
BL3: Have you seen the documentary? What do you think about it?
Irene: We have seen the documentary and it airs this Sunday at 10 p.m. on PBS so we will see it again! We think filmmaker, Yoruba Richen, did a fantastic job showing both sides of this black and gay topic. There was no bias or leaning more towards one way or the other but the viewer certainly can see at the end who/what was defeated and rightfully so.
BL3: The film addresses the black church’s resistance to marriage equality. How has religion played a role in the way you see your sexuality? Are you both religious?
Irene: Leia and I have talked about religion and share much the same views of believing in a higher entity. Neither of us questioned our sexuality because of religion and it was never an issue of concern for either of us. We don’t attend church, but Leia has mentioned going to an affirming church but I’m still on the fence about that being a recovering Catholic.
BL3: How did you two meet? Irene: We met online on Match.com. We could do a Match commercial!
Leia: Irene sent an email first, and I replied. I knew she was still dating [others], so I left her a message.
Irene: She kept canceling our dates!
Leia: I was nervous. I knew I was going to like her. I wanted to make sure. I had adopted two kids. I didn’t want to disappoint them if it didn’t work out.
Irene: I had been on soooo many Match dates, so I just told her to let me know when she was ready.
Leia: I’m so glad we finally met. I’m so happy. I would have missed out! When we first met, you could cut the energy between us. But, I would like her as a citizen—even as a friend.
BL3: How did your family respond to your relationship?
Leia: My mother was already living with me and the kids, so she was like my security [guard] and loved [Irene].
Irene: I fell in love with her [mother] and the kids! I also passed her Uncle Bill’s test. The man’s like 6’6” with a deep voice, he asked me, “Now Irene, why do you want to marry Leia?’ Keep in mind that she has two kids.”
Lea: I had been through this exercise before. I had been in a 10-year relationship and had a commitment ceremony.
BL3: What made this time around different?
Leia: With my previous relationship, we were together five or six years before we had the ceremony. I think we did it just because. But this time around, I wanted to be in a relationship where we stay together forever and have a family. I think we just felt like we deserve each other.
Irene: When we were bringing my books from the old house to the new house, I found something I had written in an old book. The book asked what marriage meant to me. [Back then], I wrote that it didn’t mean a lot to me. I never wanted to get married or have kids. And even though I fought for marriage equality, I felt like a fake. I never wanted to get married or have kids until I met Leia and the kids and then it began to really make sense.
BL3: What do you want people to know about the importance of gaining the right to marry?
Leia: It’s not about the gay issue. It’s a legal contract between two people. It’s about having rights. Being able to get legally married means a lot more than living with someone and owning stuff together.
BL3: Where were you when Maryland passed the marriage equality law?
Irene: We were at the governor’s mansion for the signing of the bill. A reporter asked us when we were getting married, and I worried about letting the people down. But we didn’t want to rush. I would have married you anyway (she says looking into Leia’s eyes). I did have a symbolic marriage license to recognize some of the work I did on behalf of getting the law passed.
BL3: Tell us about your wedding day.
Leia: We planned for February 14, 2014, but had the wedding earlier than planned.
Irene: We knew we were going to get married four days before we did. My family was visiting from the Netherlands last July and I knew they couldn’t make it back in February. I really wanted my aunt to be in the wedding so we held the ceremony early on July 10.
Leia: The actual date didn’t matter because we knew we were going to be together for the rest of our lives.
Irene: My aunt got ordained online. We got married in the house we were building in Bowie. It was under construction and we said our vows in front of the fireplace. We had the reception six months later on our original wedding date.
The Burks family includes, Leia’s mom, Gwendolyn Tabb, and their children, Marquise, 11 and Candus, 14. The children are biological siblings who Leia adopted with her previous partner, Audrey.