Wedding decorations and cookies greet couples entering the Spokane County Auditor's Office to pick up their marriage licenses, Thursday, December 6, 2012, in Spokane, Washington. Two by two, dozens of same-sex couples obtained their marriage licenses in Washington state early Thursday, just hours after Governor Chris Gregoire signed a voter-approved law legalizing gay marriage.
After waiting for years, even decades, for the right to marry, hundreds of same-sex couples lined up in Seattle on Wednesday night for one last wait.
At 12:01 a.m on Thursday, Washington state’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage—passed by the state legislature in February, blocked by opponents, and then confirmed by citizen referendum in November—went into effect. By that time, the first couple in line for a marriage license had been waiting outside the county Recorder’s Office for eight hours. But for many, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
A few hours before midnight, 186 couples down the line, Marcy Johnsen and Joey Richesson were scribbling a guest list for their upcoming wedding—the third time they’ll confirm their union. The couple, childhood friends who reconnected and fell in love 20 years ago, were among the first to register their domestic partnership when Seattle began offering the opportunity in 1994. “They went to great pains to tell us it meant nothing, legally,” said Richesson. In 2007, when the state of Washington began offering legal domestic partnerships, Johnsen and Richesson were again quick to sign up. But this night felt different: “This time it’s real. That has lots of meaning,” said Johnsen.
As the line inched along, couples told stories of how they met, asked strangers how long they’d been together, shared their disbelief that this day had finally come. People walked along the queue offering hot chocolate, champagne, roses, hand warmers, and Kleenex. “Our first wedding gift!” exclaimed one woman when a worker from a nearby coffee shop offered her a free cup of coffee.
At least two choirs—one impromptu, one affiliated with a local church—regaled the waiting couples. On the cold Seattle night, most people wore coats and scarves; here and there a veil, a tiara, a bow tie. Jake Bartholomy and Justin Goodman, together eight years, wore the outfits they had on at the 200-person wedding they’d held a year-and-a-half earlier. They had planned to wait for legalization, but changed their minds to make sure a parent with Parkinson’s disease could attend the wedding.
Just before midnight, the crowd began to count down the seconds. Then a cheer erupted and the first couples started streaming into the building. Clustered around the entrance, people began to sing, “Amen.”
All this, said King County Executive Dow Constantine, is the reason the county decided to start issuing licenses at midnight instead of its usual 8:30 a.m. opening time. “It’s important to have a celebration. It’s important that couples not have to wait another night after having waited so long,” he said. In addition, the county needed to prepare for the sudden release of long pent-up demand: “We’re staffed to meet a certain level. Suddenly having hundreds and hundreds of requests for marriage licenses would bog down the entire system.”
County employees and other community members volunteered to work through the night to accommodate the rush. By 3:30 a.m., the county had already beaten its record for the number of licenses issued on a single day. The office planned to stay open another 15 hours, and keep extended hours through the weekend.
Washington law requires a three-day wait between getting a marriage license and getting married; when the first weddings take place on Sunday, Washington will become the first state in the country to offer same-sex marriage as a result of a victory at the ballot box. (Maine and Maryland voters also approved same-sex marriage in November, but marriages won’t be available until December 29 and January 1, respectively).
After receiving their marriage licenses, couples exiting the building found a cheering crowd waiting for them. The applause was particularly loud for Jane Abbott Lighty, 77, and Pete-e Peterson, 85, who appeared in ads promoting the referendum and were chosen to be the first couple to have their license signed. After 35 years together, they will be married on Sunday during a concert at Seattle’s grand Benaroya Hall.
Many couples I spoke to noted the progress that still needs to happen in other states and at the federal level, where the Defense of Marriage Act still defines marriage as between a man and a woman. For others, after long relationships, this milestone felt more political than personal. “This isn’t what seals the deal,” said Erin Foy, who’s been with her partner Jean Hernandez for 16 years. “The deal was sealed a long time ago. This is a symbol of a wall coming down.”
For Johnsen, the night felt like an affirmation. “When I was 15 years old, I thought my girlfriend and I were the only two people like us in the whole world. Now there are thousands, millions of us. And now we’re just like everybody else.”
“It’s long overdue. But it’s worth the wait.”