3 days, 2 couples, 1 ceremony

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on Dec. 12th, 2012

As marriage equality dawned in Washington, two men and two women applied for licenses and prepared for a mass wedding

First Place, Non-Daily reporting, Social issues/religion/minority affairs, 2012
Washington Press Association

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Stephen Lloyd and Scott Shurtleff showed up outside the county administration building on Dec. 5 because of a personal ad in June 1998.

Lloyd had placed the ad in a free weekly paper in Phoenix because he’d tried the bars and couldn’t find what he really wanted: a relationship. “Maybe someone out there has this feeling, too,” he remembered thinking.

Shurtleff felt the same, but by that point, he’d replied to so many dead-end ads he figured he’d just give up. But when he read Lloyd’s, he decided to try one last time. So he left a voicemail and waited. And waited.

Shurtleff, now 44, said close to a month passed before Lloyd replied. Lloyd, 43, said it couldn’t have been that long. Shurtleff nodded his head and narrowed his eyes. “Yes, it was,” he said.

Regardless of the time lag, Lloyd suggested they meet at a McDonald’s, and he spent the time right before their first date mowing a lawn. He arrived sweaty, wearing a plaid shirt that clashed with his plaid shorts. “I will never get that image out of my brain,” Shurtleff said with a laugh.

They’ve been a couple ever since.

Standing in the Seattle chill 14 years after that first date, Shurtleff said a new thought had lodged in his mind: “I did not expect that I would see it in my younger years.”

By “it,” Shurtleff meant marriage equality. In early November, Washington voters passed Referendum 74 (R-74), which legalized marriage for same-sex couples. By January 2013, Washington will be one of nine states, along with Washington, D.C., that recognizes same-sex marriage.

Couples could apply for licenses at 12:01 a.m. Dec. 6, and county officials invited people to line up outside the building, home to the county recorder’s office, at 10 p.m. the evening before. Shurtleff and Lloyd arrived from Shoreline at 8:30 p.m. Each couple received a small rectangle of yellow paper with a number. Shurtleff and Lloyd were No. 26.

At 10:15 p.m., as more people arrived, the line behind the couple snaked around metal police barriers. A small bubble machine sent a trail of iridescent soap globes into the air. On the sidewalk, a chorus sang “Chapel of Love.” Drivers on James Street honked horns. The crowd cheered.

Among the applicants, some people voiced excitement that they were taking part in history. Others said they had waited years to marry the person they loved. And many expressed another reason they decided to brave the cold: to have their relationships validated by the state.

Amandalee Nelson and Courtney Casey fell into this camp. When the Issaquah couple heard that R-74 passed, they made a quick decision. “We thought, ‘Why not do it on the first day?’’’ said Nelson.

The pair had planned to arrive by

10 p.m., but a televised zombiepocalypse delayed them. Instead of getting in their car, they decided to watch another episode of the hit show “The Walking Dead.” Now Nelson held a slip of paper that read No. 194.

They knew it meant they might have to wait for hours to apply for their marriage license, but it mattered little. They had $64 to pay for the document. Nelson, 29, said before they left home, she’d downed coffee. Casey, 22, brought her iPhone so they could enjoy more episodes of the undead. And as people celebrated near them, they huddled next to each other for warmth.

In Washington a couple must wait 72 hours after applying for a license before having a ceremony. Nelson and Casey, who have been together for four years, planned to tie the knot on Dec. 9, the first day same-sex couples could legally marry. Others in the line planned nuptials for the same day, including Shurtleff and Lloyd.

But Nelson and Casey and Shurtleff and Lloyd shared more than a wedding date. They would take part in the same ceremony at the same church at the same time. In a group wedding at Seattle First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Ave., Shurtleff would marry Lloyd, and Nelson would marry Casey. Both couples view state recognition as important and both know how it feels to have others withhold support and approval.

Parents and partnerships

The day before she stood in line to apply for a marriage license, Nelson was in tears.

She had written a letter to her father to tell him she and Casey planned a wedding. Citing religion, he had told Nelson that having a relationship with a woman meant she’d be doomed to hell. Nelson hoped an invitation to the wedding might change his feelings, especially since she and Casey would have a legal marriage in a church.

Nelson told herself she wouldn’t let it bother her if she didn’t hear from her father. But when he hadn’t replied by Dec. 4, she broke down. “I didn’t think he’d come,” she said, “but I at least thought he’d respond.”

While Nelson’s sexuality created a wedge between her and her father, her relationship with Casey made it more acute. Not so with Casey’s family. Nelson said they have accepted her and the relationship. “I really lucked out,” she said.

Shurtleff and Lloyd haven’t had such luck.

Shurtleff said most of his family doesn’t accept him as a gay man. So when he and Lloyd decided soon after they met they wanted to get married, the couple entered marriage counseling. They did it, Shurtleff said, not only to show his family the relationship was legit: “I wanted the relationship to last.”

Lloyd said that he spent years trying to please his parents and convince them he and Shurtleff had a valid partnership. When the couple held a commitment ceremony in Phoenix in 1999, it was in the largest gay-friendly church in the city. Lloyd invited his family. “They said, ‘You don’t expect us to come to this, do you?’” So the pair had the ceremony without them.

At the time, a commitment ceremony was the couple’s best option. In 1996, Congress approved the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as a union between a man and woman. Then President Bill Clinton signed the law.

Since then, Clinton has voiced his support of marriage equality. So has President Barack Obama, and he directed the Attorney General in 2011 to end support of DOMA after legal experts in his administration found parts of the legislation unconstitutional.

DOMA hasn’t stopped states from legalizing same-sex marriage. Massachusetts became the first in 2004, when then Gov. Mitt Romney directed the state’s town clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

When Shurtleff and Lloyd left Phoenix in 2008 for Seattle, Massachusetts was still the only state that supported marriage equality. So along with participating in two other commitment ceremonies in the United States, the pair got married in Toronto, where same-sex marriage is legal.

Along with having a Canadian marriage license, the two registered as domestic partners in Washington. Domestic partnership confers more than 170 of the benefits of a legal marriage and was, until the passage of R-74, the only legal option available to same-sex couples. But with the advent of marriage equality, the state’s domestic partnership program will end June 2014. (Heterosexual couples in which one partner is over 62 can remain in domestic partnerships.)

While waiting in line to apply for a license, Shurtleff pulled his domestic partnership card out of his wallet. The card was creased and its edges worn. It would soon be obsolete.

Nelson and Casey have cards, too. They became domestic partners in June, Nelson said, because it allowed her to receive insurance benefits through Casey’s job. The couple notarized the form at a UPS store. “That’s not very romantic,” she said with a chuckle.

But around them in line, romance was in the air: Couples smooched, while others held hands or posed for pictures. And people who would have considered each other strangers before meeting in line hugged their new friends and said, “Congratulations.”

Then an enormous cheer erupted. It was 12:01 a.m. A few minutes later, a man with a ginger beard ran toward the end of the line near Nelson and Casey. He shouted, “The courthouse doors are open to equality!”

The wait is over. Almost

Well, maybe not the courthouse doors but definitely those to the recorder’s office. Officials admitted the first 50 couples, and Shurtleff and Lloyd maneuvered around metal barriers to enter the administration building. Couples congregated in the warm lobby. They waited in a short line.

The couple rode an elevator up one floor, where the doors opened to another lobby. And another line.

As Shurtleff and Lloyd stood, County Executive Dow Constantine walked past. Cameras flashed. One bystander cried.

A county staff member stood at the front of the line, and every few minutes, she pointed one couple into a room. After 10 or so minutes, she came to Shurtleff and Lloyd. They followed her finger and stood in yet one more line.

But unlike the lobby, the room buzzed with energy. Ten employees from the recorder’s office sat at tables near the walls, each person behind a computer. Printers ejected forms. TV cameramen set up tripods in corners. When a woman wearing a veil and her partner sat down to fill out their application, cameras swarmed around them.

Seated next to the women, Shurtleff and Lloyd raised their right hands. The staffer asked them some questions. “I do,” they said together.

They signed their application. The paid the fee. They filled out boxes. They staff member handed them a manila packet. And at 12:48 a.m., the couple leaned against a wall in a hallway, exhausted.

“That’s the hard part,” Lloyd said. “The rest is celebrating.”

The celebration was still a ways away for Nelson and Casey, as they stood outside waiting to enter. They pulled their hoodies over their hair and stared at an iPhone screen as a man evaded zombies. Nelson said they were still excited, but cold. A couple near them nodded.

A light rain fell, but it did little to diminish the joy. Couples laughed, told stories, drank hot chocolate. A Jack Sprat of a man kissed his not-so-lean husband-to-be. As the line moved then stalled, workmen wheeled outdoor patio heaters closer to the couples.

At 2:45 a.m., the pair entered the building lobby. Took the elevator. Waited in another line. Entered the room with computers and printers. Raised their hands, paid their fee, signed the forms and took their packet. It was almost 4 a.m.

As they headed for the Fifth Avenue exit, Constantine sat at a table signing ceremonial licenses. Couples who wanted one would have to wait another 10 minutes. Nelson and Casey opted for a pre-signed license instead. “I have to be at work at seven,” Nelson said.

“So do I,” said Casey.

A crowd cheered as they left the building. Along with work, they still needed to buy shoes for the wedding. And flowers. The lengthy to-do list and preceremony jitters created ambivalence. “We want to be married more than we want to have a wedding,” Nelson said.

In three days’ time, they would get their wish.

Husbands and wives

Even with the clouds and drizzle outside Seattle First Baptist on Dec. 9, the stained glass windows inside glowed with light. An organist and brass quartet played a church hymn as Nelson and Casey and Shurtleff and Lloyd, along with 23 other couples, proceeded down several aisles. More than 250 people gave all the couples a standing ovation. The 25 couples returned the favor.

“Are you ready to be married?” Rev. Craig Darling asked. A man in a shirt and tie wiped a tear and nodded. Rev. Darling invited them all to stand, and, facing their partners, they repeated vows he spoke. Then, in a whisper, each member in the couple recited vows to the other. They exchanged rings.

Earlier, the county’s first gay/straight alliance youth chorus sang an anthem and, after the rings, a blue-robed choir led the congregation in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” One male couple, both with white beards to rival Walt Whitman’s, brushed shoulders.

Head pastor Rev. Tim Phillips said that due to his belief in the separation of church and state, he rarely found it necessary to invoke his invested powers. But this ceremony, he said, was different. This was historic.

“By the power vested in us by the state of Washington,” Rev. Phillips said as he stood with other clergy members, “we now declare that you are married.”

Nelson gave Casey a peck on the lips. Shurtleff touched Lloyd’s face. And, in less than 45 minutes, roughly the time it took the couples to enter and leave the recorder’s office with their license applications, the ceremony was over.

Each couple still needed their licenses signed by a pastor to make the marriage legal. Holding a ceremonial certificate, Shurtleff said, he and Lloyd would stop by receptions at City Hall and Paramount Theater that evening, then have dinner with a co-worker who’d attended. Only one other friend was there. “No family,” Shurtleff said.

“But all this happened,” Lloyd said.

“He means that so many people showed up.”

At home, Shurtleff said they had T-shirts that read, “Groom,” and in public they would call each other husband. Other than that, Shurtleff said not much would change.

But the future could bring one big difference. Hours after he and Shurtleff applied for their license, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated it would hear two cases related to marriage equality: one case concerns Proposition 8, a California constitutional amendment that prohibits same-sex marriage in that state, while the second considers DOMA, which denies same-sex couples the federal benefits allowed heterosexual couples. Decisions could be rendered by June 2013.

With voters approving marriage equality in Washington and two other states last month, Shurtleff said that, he was optimistic. “I feel, for the first time, that DOMA might be overturned, and Proposition 8,” he said.

Nelson felt positive, too. Already, good things had happened. She and Casey met Shurtleff and Lloyd for the first time. And even though Nelson’s father wrote, in a four-page letter filled with Bible verses, that he wouldn’t come to her wedding, Nelson’s brother, who is gay, attended.

“He cried,” Casey said.

“Your whole family was bawling,” Nelson said.

Later that evening, the two wives would celebrate with a dinner cruise. “Then tomorrow,” Nelson said, “I change my [last] name to Casey.”

After that, Nelson said they would pick up where they left off before they began their quest for legal recognition from the state: “We go back to our real life.”

Photography by Ted Mase.

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