by Carole Verona
On Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Bonnie Strahs was riding in her car when she heard the news that a U.S. federal district court judge ruled that the Commonwealth’s 1996 statutory ban on recognizing same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. She immediately called Rita Myers, her partner, who was working at home. “I quickly looked it up on the Internet and, sure enough, there it was,” Rita said. “My first thought was this is a good sign, but we still have a way to go. I figured Governor Corbett is going to appeal this.”
The next day, Corbett announced that he was not going to appeal the decision. “We were so astounded by the whole thing,” Bonnie added. Because it was Wednesday, the Marriage License Bureau at City Hall would be open late. So Rita asked Bonnie, “What are you doing tonight?” The couple dashed off to City Hall to apply for their marriage license. “It was crowded. I don’t think they realized what had happened and how busy it would be,” Bonnie recalled.
“I’m glad we went to get our license that night because it was kind of celebratory. Everyone we ran into was sincerely happy for us. Afterwards, we went for a drink and a light bite at the Marriott. The manager came with complimentary glasses of champagne, and we even got a complimentary dessert from the chef. They kind of figured out what we were up to,” Rita said.
The couple got married in a private ceremony on Saturday, June 28, in the chambers of Court of Common Pleas Judge Ann Butchart. Bonnie’s sister and a few close friends were present. Bonnie explained that they wanted to get married quickly and didn’t have time to pull together a party. “Also, we knew it was going to be very emotional, and I didn’t want to be crying in front of a crowd of people.” Rita agreed, “I didn’t want to lose it!” After the marriage, they attended a post-wedding lunch at Keating’s River Grill.
Three months later, on Saturday, Sept. 13, Bonnie and Rita, both 67, celebrated and partied with 71 of their friends and family members at Curtis Hall Arboretum in Wyncote. Barbara Gindhart, a chaplain at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, led the celebration, where the couple told their story and read from the works of Rumi, a 13th Century Persian poet, rock star Melissa Etheridge and others. Rita knew for a long time that she wanted to include Rumi’s poem with the words, “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere; they’re in each other all along” because she felt that she and Bonnie have been trailing each other all of their lives, even without knowing each other.
At the celebration, each guest took a small stone and infused it with their intentions for the couple and for the world and returned the stone to a bowl, which now sits in the couple’s living room. Place cards on the tables bore the names of famous lesbians. Bonnie and Rita chose Ellen DeGeneres for their table because, in Bonnie’s words, “she is courageous, brave and funny. She’s a great role model.”
After the ceremony, “the crowd went wild…whopping, laughing and cheering,” Rita added.
Bonnie thinks that there has been great progress with same-sex marriage. “It seems to be sweeping across the country. I don’t think it will be much longer before it’s legal everywhere, but we haven’t won equality in many other areas. In Pennsylvania, there’s no protection against discrimination in jobs or housing.” She believes the legalization of same-sex marriage will encourage straight people to see gays as “regular human beings who fall in love, want to get married and have kids and a home. Hopefully, then, people will be less threatened by job issues or housing issues.”
Rita and Bonnie met in 2000 at the New York Gay Pride parade. After one date, their relationship was put on hold because Bonnie had reunited with an ex-girlfriend. Finally, a year later, they resumed their relationship and eventually moved in together. They relocated to Philadelphia from New York in 2003. At first, they lived in an apartment in East Falls but purchased a home in West Mt. Airy in 2004, which they share with their two cats, Gigi and Pierre. They chose Mt Airy because of its reputation as a lesbian-friendly community and because of the beauty, convenience and accessibility of the neighborhood.
Both women currently work from home. Rita established her own graphic design business in 2007. Her clients are Health Quality Partners, Sellers Dorsey, the Mazzoni Center, the Athlete Health Organization and the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia. Before that, she worked for several companies in New York. She has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Douglass Residential College, Rutgers (1969), and a master’s degree in fine arts (1974) from Hunter College of the City University of New York.
Rita is also an award-winning visual artist whose large, theatrical and often interactive multi-media installations have been exhibited at the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and internationally in Amsterdam, Brazil and Berlin.
Bonnie also received a bachelor’s degree from Douglass College, Rutgers, in 1969 and has a master’s degree in social work (1974) from New York University. She has over 30 years of experience as a social worker and administrator, mostly dealing with women’s and children’s issues, homelessness, substance abuse, child welfare, and welfare-to-work programs. Most recently, she worked as a support person for children with autism and developmental disabilities and as a caregiver for individual clients.
With a lifelong interest in theatre and the arts, Bonnie recently decided to transition to a totally new career doing voice-over work, acting, and modeling. She took voice-acting classes with Joanne Joella, of JoellaArts in Melrose Park, who continues to coach her. Bonnie is now represented by Model Management Agency.
Bonnie appeared as an extra in “House of Cards,” worked on the show “Madame Secretary” (she didn’t make the final cut) and played a Quaker woman in two of Sam Katz’s productions of “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.” She was also cast as an extra in the PBS Genealogy Road Show when it came to Philadelphia. Bonnie has been recording for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton’s Teaching of English as a Foreign Language program.
Rita and Bonnie are both active in the community. They volunteer with GO! Philly Women Give to Others, a women’s giving circle. “We focus on organizations that support women and children in need with a focus on the lesbian and bisexual community,” Rita said. “Our operating model is simple. We host an event, collect the money, give it to the organization, and we’re done.”
Bonnie and Rita are just about finished building a log cabin in Jim Thorpe, Pa. “That’s been my obsession for the last year and a half,” Rita said. “We hope to have many happy times there.”