What a difference five years can make. Thanks to the successful lawsuit brought by the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the long and deep work of Freedom to Marry and the electoral victories of 2012, marriage equality has become an emotional civil rights issue with a cloak of inevitability. The overturning of Prop. 8 and DOMA last week was jubilantly celebrated by not only the LGBT community, but the president of the United States and most thoughtful and compassionate Americans. And with the sudden lifting of the injunction last Friday, the marriage of AFER plaintiffs Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami was viewed live on The Rachel Maddow Show and the photos of Kris Perry and Sandy Stier’s marriage officiated by Attorney General Kamala Harris became national news.
But unlike 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom unexpectedly announced the issuance of marriage licenses during the annual Freedom to Marry Coalition/Marriage Equality USA demonstrations around Valentine’s Day—or in 2008 after the California Supreme Court declared that Prop. 22 unconstitutionally denied marriage rights to same-sex couples—this time there was no Gold Rush-like urgency to getting hitched. There were almost as many media outlets at West Hollywood City Hall on Monday, July 1, as there were couples waiting their turn to be married by a West Hollywood city councilmember or staffer deputized by widely proclaimed 'hero' L.A. County Recorder-Registrar Dean Logan.
But interestingly, the lack of frenzy and the smaller turnout enabled the couples—most of whom seemed to have been together for ages—and the WeHo staff supporting them and even the media to become more like family.
That was particularly true for Helen Andersen, 50, and Pam Holt, 49, who will celebrate 19 years together in October. The couple drove in from Lancaster with Nicki Powers—the partner of Helen’s sister who died eight months ago—and her two boys, Austin, 18, and Tyler Mead, 21. There was an urgency for this family; Pam has stage four non-operative colorectal cancer.
Nicki and the boys brought chairs and were first in line at City Hall at 7 a.m.—even though the council wouldn’t be sworn in until 12:30-1 p.m. that afternoon. Then things started to go wrong. The county clerk rejected their marriage application because Pam’s identification—her driver’s license—had expired. When the WeHo staff learned of their frantic situation, they brought it to the attention of Dean Logan, who called the clerk and cleared it up.
“Thank God for Dean Logan,” Helen said when the couple got back to WeHo City Hall. “I’m very, very thankful! I’m on top of the world.” She said things started turning around when Austin gave them a small locket with some of his mother’s ashes in them. “We wanted her to be here with us.”
The support and love for this family was palpable. “We’ve been pulling for you,” said one WeHo staff organizer.
“We’ve been together for 18 and a half years,” said Helen. “This is our last chance.”
West Hollywood Councilmember John Duran choked up delivering the vows “in sickness and in health.” Pam closed her eyes. But when Duran pronounced them legally married—Pam’s smile lit up the small cabana and everyone cheered.
As the boys signed the forms as witnesses, Pam shakily sat down and Helen wet her head with cold water. “My health is not so good,” Pam told me.
The couple was on their way to get Pam’s chemo last Wednesday when they heard the news about the Supreme Court ruling from their nephews. “We’d been checking every day,” said Helen, “but we couldn’t get FM radio in the car, and we were stuck on the 5 in traffic. So this is very bittersweet—but we’re very grateful.”
Suddenly, Helen turned to me with a very serious expression. “I don’t know how old you are,” she said, “but if you’re 50 or older, you need to get a colorectal exam. African-American and Hispanic women should get an exam after 45. The camera is a lot smaller than when Katie Couric did it. It’s now the size of a Number 2 pencil.”
The happy couple—now Andersen-Holt—and their family talked to the media and shared their gratitude with the WeHo staffers who had helped get them through the grueling part of their journey and then they lingered, seemingly not wanting to leave this open-air haven of love as other couples took their turns reciting vows and cheering each other on.
It’s quiet moments like this when one can actually see and feel the tide of history changing. As old timers who have fought for dignity and civil rights and their relationships for years choked back tears as their legal rights—their very personhood—was recognized in these small cabanas as they took their vows in front of family and friends with the soundtrack of clicking cameras playing in the background. And then, after the exhilaration of securing what had once seemed unattainable, after the hugs and tears and media interviews, the couples walked off saying, “So what do you want to do now?” as other couples came in, signed up and nervously looked around at the love wafting all around them.
History? Yes, but more personal, individual threads woven into the larger tapestry of LGBT equality.
Here are some more happy couples who tied the knot on Monday:
William Heermancett and Salvador Acosta were not the only couple to cry. West Hollywood Councilmember John Duran, sworn in as a commissioner to officiate marriages, confessed he "choked up every time."
Gary Reichard and Oswaldo Pena of Palm Springs said "we finally made it" as their friend West Hollywood City Councilmember John Heilman performed their marriage ceremony.
Wanda Lawson and Lauryne Braithwaite, who have been together for 32 years, wore rainbow leis and were "very grateful" to the City of West Hollywood for providing the help with their wedding.
Paul Mejia, 78, and David Barney, 70, together 43 years!
Ty Webb, 68, and Tom Burger, 64, with Hunter Goffin, 13. The couple has been together for 25 years.
Julie Rey, 75, and Joan Adlen, 77, together for 25 years. "Finally!" they said.