For decades, perhaps even centuries, same-sex couples have longed to be recognized as equal to heterosexual individuals in this nation, to have their love documented in courts the way it is acknowledged in their hearts. Through sweat and tears, through setbacks, overturned rulings, and unimaginable ostracization, they are one step closer to the equality they should enjoy anyway as members of a nation that promises liberty and justice for all. That step was long overdue, but it was finally taken in Florida on Jan. 6, 2015, when the first state-recognized same-sex marriages in the area’s history were officiated. The past two years have seen great advances in the search for marriage equality in the United States, and as Florida joins the growing majority of states that legally recognize same-sex unions, there are a slew of excited couples tying the knot and proving that love can transcend gender-based divides.
It all started in February of 2014, when civil rights attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Florida same-sex couple that was actually married in Canada. The case, Brenner v. Scott, would become synonymous with Florida’s fight for gay rights over the next several months. Simultaneous to these proceedings, American Civil Liberties Union attorneys filed a similar case, Grimsley v. Scott, on behalf of eight couples that had been married in other states and wished for Florida courts to recognize the union. These cases were soon combined so that their ruling would have implications for the entire state.
“Our federal lawsuit in Tallahassee was consolidated with the sole other federal lawsuit,” said Benjamin Stevenson, a local ACLU attorney.
After they were consolidated, Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida’s statutory and constitutional bans (approved via amendment in 2008) were not constitutional. The order was stayed temporarily, and after the US Supreme Court denied a request to extend the stay on Dec. 19, 2014, the stay expired and gay marriage became legal in Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. On Jan. 6, it was clear to the Clerk’s offices that demand was high. The Escambia County Clerk issued about 90 licenses to wed that first day, compared to the usual five or so.
“These requests are no different than those for any marriage license for two people who love each other,” said Stevenson.
While some administrative changes still have to take place, Stevenson reported that there are no remaining legal differences in Florida between married straight and gay couples.
“We are still waiting for the Social Security Administration to update their internal guidance so that Florida marriages of same-sex couples are fully recognized for all purposes,” said Stevenson.
Robert Smith and Jason Wilkins were among the first in Escambia County to be issued a marriage license on Jan. 6 following the overturn of the ban. They had been together for 11 years previous to this momentous occasion and, according to Wilkins, had been married for a long time in their minds.
“The legal aspect of marriage was important to us, though,” said Wilkins. “We wanted to be able to make legal, medical and financial decisions for one another. It’s important that we can share in the responsibility of each other’s lives.”
The loving couple was issued a license—a symbol of their new lives together—early that Tuesday and had a ceremony behind the Maritime Park later that evening.
“We wanted to have a real ceremony, and friends and family encouraged us to do so,” said Wilkins. “I’m glad we did. We’re still adjusting to the married life and to getting to call each other ‘husband’ for real.”
Another couple that was wed first thing Tuesday had become a prominent figurehead of gay rights in Pensacola. Civil rights leader Dr. Jim Merritt married his husband Albert Leach following a long fight to enjoy the rights and privileges of legal marriage. In 2004, Dr. Merritt unsuccessfully sued Orange County for a marriage license and has been a faithful supporter of the journey toward marriage equality ever since. The couple has been together for more than 20 years.
“We have wanted to bring marriage equality to as many places as possible for many years,” said Merritt.
Merritt also serves as the senior pastor of Holy Cross Metropolitan Community Church and officiated weddings for 20 giddy couples on Jan. 6 before finally taking that momentous step himself, a stride decades in the making.
“That day is actually my birthday, so it was a grand celebration to wed and celebrate my birthday on the same day,” said Merritt.
Both Merritt and Leach reported a happy marriage thus far and a greater, unexpected appreciation for their official union and what it represents.
“I didn’t know how it would feel, but it feels absolutely wonderful,” said Merritt. “It has brought us unexpectedly deeper levels of intimacy and I wish the same experience on everyone else getting married.”
Merritt and Leach was not the only gay couple pivotal to the statewide fight for marriage equality. Lindsay Myers and Sarah Humlie were plaintiffs in the ACLU suit that was consolidated with the federal lawsuit. Myers and Humlie were married in Washington, DC in 2012 but were dismayed to discover that Humlie could not join Myers’ insurance plan because their home state of Florida did not recognize their union.
“If Lindsay had married a man, he would have no problem getting on the insurance,” said Humlie. “The ACLU saw that as a valid case.”
Myers and Humlie has been together since 2010 and wanted both the legal and tangible benefits of a recognized marriage. After waiting for some administrative changes after the stay expired on Jan. 6, Humlie was finally able to join her wife’s healthcare plan on Feb. 1, a blessing that was even more important given Humlie’s recent cancer diagnosis.
“It is a big and important accomplishment,” said Humlie. “It really hit me the other day when I was in the pharmacy and I saw these other couples getting some prescriptions. I thought to myself, ‘We get to be the same as them now.’ Our love is just as valid as anyone else’s. It feels good to feel like we’re not being treated differently.”
Most vendors in Pensacola are just as happy about these developments as the newlyweds.
I didn’t know how it would feel, but it feels absolutely wonderful. It has brought us unexpectedly deeper levels of intimacy and I wish the same experience on everyone else getting married.
With an expected increase in business of up to 30 percent, these merchants are happy to help couples across the city and state publicly recognize their marriage. One vendor in particular is enjoying both sides of this ruling, as he has been the only openly gay wedding planner on the coast for some time. Darrin Land of Legacy Event Design has been designing and coordinating same-sex weddings for years and looks forward to the greater meaning these ceremonies now have for him and his clients.
“We have had amazing couples traveling to states where same-sex marriage was legal and then planning the celebration here on the panhandle,” said Land. After the news finally broke that gay marriage would soon be legal, Land’s phone rang off the hook with business requests from enthusiastic couples who just couldn’t wait to profess their love.
“I answered 20 to 25 calls in the first 48 hours,” said Land. “Being openly gay, I am glad to see Florida on the right side of history. We are the 36th state to legalize marriage for everyone. Florida has joined the new reality.”
Proving that gay couples don’t ruin the fun for straight couples, Barrett and Beth McClean of Barrett McClean photography are overjoyed at the prospect of capturing the special moments same-sex couples can now share together as they officially begin their lives together.
“We are thrilled about the ruling in favor of gay marriage,” said Beth. “It’s been a long time coming. There is no bias whatsoever on our end, and from purely business and financial standpoints, this is of course a great thing for wedding vendors.”
The fight for nationwide marriage equality is not over. The US Supreme Court recently said that it would take up the topic this year and issue a once-and-for-all opinion, probably early in the summer. Concerning this upcoming battle, perhaps Stevenson said it best, echoing famous sentiments by Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Opponents of justice for the LGBT community will continue to attempt to impede the LGBT community from obtaining formal legal equality,” said Stevenson. “However, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’.”