It was the urgency that got her attention.
Even from hundreds of miles away, Wendy Matis said, a mother knows when something is wrong.
It was Presidents Day weekend 2011 when her son called unexpectedly on a Sunday evening and told her, “I need to come home.”
The call came late in the day. It was the Sunday of a three-day weekend. Matis suggested they postpone, so he could enjoy a full weekend back at the family’s Millcreek home.
“No,” Sean Smith told her. “I need to come home tonight.”
That was all she needed to hear.
“If your child tells you they need to come home, that’s it,” Matis said. “You get them home.”
As Smith boarded a plane from Los Angeles, his parents began to worry. What could be so wrong that he needed to return home so urgently, they wondered.
They didn’t yet know those tense moments would be their last feeling like a family equally recognized under Utah law.
Smith stumbled his way through three hours of small talk as questions raced through his parents’ minds: Was it a girl? Was it school? Were his grades plummeting?
Finally, like water escaping through cracks of cupped hands, the truth came spilling out: “I think I might be gay,” the 19-year-old said.
“Honestly, we were so relieved,” Matis told The Tribune. “It was something we didn’t think was a problem. We could tell he was struggling, but for us, we told him, ‘Look, we’re good with this. We’re totally good with this.’ ”
Three years later, Matis will spend her Mother’s Day with her husband, Dale Smith, their son and his boyfriend in southern Utah. Meanwhile, her family will become the focal point of Utah Unites for Marriage’s newest online ad campaign that hopes to reach out to mothers on Mother’s Day with the message:
“My family is just like your family,”said Matis, a Salt Lake City dermatologist. “We want to see our children work and contribute to society and find someone they love and have a long happy marriage and a family. And we want them to stay here, in Utah, because Utah is our home.”
The half-minute video spot — scheduled to launch online Saturday — is the third of its kind, created in conjunction with national gay-rights group Freedom to Marry, and focuses on the Smiths family’s feeling of equality.
“The three weeks when marriage was legal here,” Matis tells the camera, her voice breaking, tears welling with tears. “We felt just as good as everyone else.”
On Dec. 20, 2013, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby made history when he declared Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, prompting hundreds of gay and lesbian couples to crowd county clerks offices in pursuit of a marriage license. The ban remained null and void for 17 days, until the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state a stay, halting the weddings.
In that time, Matis said, she felt like her son was finally equal to his straight counterparts, like her family was the same as any others in the state.
“I look at my son, who is wonderful, and I just know that the state government doesn’t think his relationship is as good, that it isn’t worthy of recognition,” she said. “During those three weeks when marriage equality was legal, people were asking us when Sean was going to get married. As a parent, you never want to pressure your kid that way, like, ‘When are you going to get married?’ But it felt good. It felt good to be asked, to feel like it wasn’t a question of if but when.”
The state has contended before federal judges that states should each have the ability to define marriage as they see fit. The state has also argued that children benefit from being raised by opposite-sex parents.
In the video, Smith and his boyfriend, Jonathan, walk hand-in-hand behind Smith’s parents, who have been married for 25 years.
It’s a literal demonstration of what Matis said she hopes her son will one day be able to do: follow in their footsteps.
The Kitchen v. Herbert lawsuit that toppled the state’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban is awaiting a ruling from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which will either uphold or overturn Shelby’s ruling.
Regardless of that outcome, the case is widely expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court, meaning it could take months before the question of same-sex marriage in Utah has been settled.