How a lesbian kitchen designer joined the fight for marriage equality in New Jersey

Tish Colombi, former mayor of Haddonfield and Diane Marini and Marilyn Maneely
Tish Colombi, former mayor of Haddonfield and Diane Marini and Marilyn Maneely file photo

For Diane Marini, who owned a company called Women in Labor, to fall in love with a delivery nurse, it seemed like one of the best puns around.

Women In Labor Inc. was the first name of Marini’s construction company. Her love of design stemmed from her college days at the Parsons School of Design in New York City and continued as she moved to southern New Jersey to pursue bigger and better ambitions.

“[My lawyer] said, ‘You know, you’re going to turn some people off by that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t want them as clients.’ It was very simple for me. So then, ironically enough, I was doing a men’s clothing store that was in New York also. And it was called Today’s Man. Well, I did all their new construction flooring. And so it was always, ‘You ship that to Women in Labor care of Today’s Man’ and people would go ‘This is a joke, right?’” said Marini.

But it was this name that led her to the love of her life, Marilyn Maneely. They met in 1991, fell in love, moved in together, and raised Maneely’s five children from her previous marriage.

“I moved in. The youngest was five at the time. And when she went to school for the first time, they did a timeline of life, you know, and so, and we cracked up the timeline, blah, blah, blah. Mommy meets Diane, Diane moves in, and Daddy is gone. I’m sure the teacher must have been hysterical because we were the only gays in town at that point.” Marini added, laughing.

Lambda Legal approached the couple in the summer of 2002, as part of an ongoing effort to legalize gay marriage in the state. Much like the other plaintiffs in the suit, they attempted to get a marriage license and were promptly denied. A press conference was held.

A journalist friend of Maneely’s was part of the conference. According to Marini, he said he went to many gay weddings and the issue of marriage wasn’t an issue at all.

“But we laughed, and we said, ‘Look, there’s a big group of lawyers behind us. You have to understand you don’t know what you’re talking about. What you meant to [say was they] were the gay parties. There might have been a wedding license, but when they left that church or wherever they were having it, they left with zero rights,’” said Marini.

He called the next day to apologize and continued to follow the couple to town halls and press conferences, providing major coverage of the issue as it headed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Lewis v. Harris, the lawsuit, ended, but the verdict was unclear. But the day it ended happened to be when Marini and Maneely first attempted to get their marriage license. It was 2004, and Marilyn Maneely had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and needed treatment.

But because of the unclear verdict, they decided to file for a domestic partnership. They needed the rights that a domestic partnership would afford them, and fast. They went to Borough Hall together one more time.

“But what was nice was we were friendly with the mayor who happened to be in Borough Hall that day. And we’re getting our paperwork done. And all the girls in Borough Hall knew me because I was on a board that was on the planning board. And they’re crying with us because we can’t get married, but we can get [domestic partnership].

So they’re sad for us, right? So here we are laughing and crying at the same time. And the mayor hears us and says, ‘Diane, you making trouble again?’ And I said that we’re getting our papers for [domestic partnership]. And she ran down and got the chief of police to come up and take our picture.” said Marini.

Maneely died Sept. 5, 2005. Domestic partnerships only allow four main rights, including access to the partner’s body after death. Following Maneely’s wishes, they wanted to donate her body after the services.

Marini’s signature was not accepted. A biological family member had to sign off.

“When people take marriage for granted, it irritates me because they don’t have a clue what we went through even though we’re in the middle of this, and especially as a plaintiff, it’s really a slap in the face,” said Marini.

Marini went to the New Jersey State Senate to persuade them to make gay marriage legal and heard from senators who said she was brave. Those senators voted against the bill.

Another case in 2013, Garden State Equality v. Dow, finally granted the ability for gay couples to marry and the rights provided in marriage.

Marini still runs a construction company based in South Jersey, creating cabinets and helping to build kitchens.

“They think that we have, you know, the rights of this when we aren’t protected, and marriage means full protection under the law. Nothing else does.”