New York Couples Finally Say “I Do”

Tears and cheers on historic first day of marriage equality

After years of advocacy, political crossfire and civil arrests in the name of equality, same-sex couples across New York state married legally for the first time on Sunday, July 24.

State officials received more than 2,600 marriage license applications, at least half of which from couples who sought to be married on the historic first day. Expecting overwhelming demand on July 24, New York City implemented a lottery system for the available 764 spots, but later admitted all 823 couples who applied—the most marriages in a single day in New York State history.

The city vowed that they would not close the marriage bureau’s offices until every one of the couples was legally married.

Outside of the marriage bureau in Manhattan, where more than 400 marriages took place, hundreds of cheering bystanders stood across the street in the raging heat with flowers, rice, cameras, cookies and signs to show their support. The line to the entrance of the building wrapped around the block with couples preparing to exercise their newly given right. As each couple mounted the steps they were met with a barrage of flashes, cheers and representatives from companies advertising wedding services.

Some couples kissed for the crowd and held their marriage license for all to see, while other couples silently walked off, hailed a cab and were gone.

“We just wanted to come celebrate and congratulate, holler and be happy for all these couples who are finally getting the legal recognition that they deserve,” said Chris Hampton, who held a sign that read, “You have the right to be yourself.”

Phyllis Siegel, 76, and Connie Kopelov, 84, together for 23 years, were the first same-sex couple to wed in Manhattan. Kopelov, who arrived with the assistance of a wheelchair, and Siegal were greeted by cheers as Kopelov raised their marriage certificate.

Carol Anastasio, 49, and Mimi Brown, 57, were also among the first couples to tie the knot on Sunday. After 20 years of together, these Lower East Siders were all smiles. “It’s a beautiful day. Magical! When did two ordinary New Yorkers have so many cameras surrounding them and international press? It’s a long time coming,” said Anastasio.

“We’re so happy to be chosen to represent the arrival of gay marriage. We are just regular people who have been out in the forefront thanks to all those involved—the Governor, the Speaker, everyone. It’s fantastic!” added Brown.

A couple for seven years and engaged since 2008, Gabrielle Cabrera (nee Harmon) and Jacqueline Cabrera of Elmhurst, Queens finally got married. “I’ve always known I wanted to be a part of her family and make a family for her. That’s why I wanted our kids to have her last name,” said Gabrielle.

“It means everything. It’s the first day of the rest of our lives. It’s the first day of the family that we’re starting. It’s almost like being born.  I wouldn’t want to have a family with anyone else,” she added.  The couple will be having their wedding service in Central Park next week.

Andrea Reese and Alice Roe, together two and a half years, smiled and held hands as they left the marriage bureau. “It’s so gigantic. We’ve both lived in New York for over 20 years.  It represents so much personally, really in every way. We fought for the cause,” said Reese.

The idea of fighting for the right to get married was a common thread among couples who not only had to ask permission of their partner’s family, but had to battle for permission from their state.

“All these people getting married, everybody is just a big ball of happiness,” added Roe, as Reese concurred, “I couldn’t sleep last night I was just so excited!”  The couple will honeymoon in Barcelona.

Reverend Pat Bumgardner of Metropolitan Community Church of New York was finally able to legally marry same-sex couples. “I’m very excited to have lived to see this day. I was telling Cathy [Marino, board president of Marriage Equality New York], we were crying because we broke into the marriage chapel years ago and did a wedding, because they would not allow us to use the chapel. Just all the years of doing weddings on the steps of city hall and nobody being willing to step up to the plate and say ‘Yes, this is the right thing to do’.”

“For me, today is the culmination of more than 30 years of really just hammering away, storming the gates…people have worked a long, long time on this one. Reverend Troy Perry filed the first suit for marriage equality in this country in 1970. This has been a long, long time coming,” recalled Rev. Pat, who performed same sex marriages in front of City Hall in protest in 2004. “We can’t let up, the thing we have to realize in the mix of our joy today is that DOMA is still on the plate, and we have to take care of that and remember that none of these things we are accomplishing today really benefit the transgender community. It’s all of us or none of us.”

Sharon Kleinbaum, the head Rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), married couples outside under a rainbow chuppah. Couples broke the traditional glass and danced the hora while onlookers cheered.  “I’m very moved personally, deeply moved. I always think back to the founding of CBST in 1973.  Members couldn’t be openly gay and deeply Jewish. They came together with no support, really legally or religiously, and so many of them died from AIDS. It’s kind of bitter sweet. I think of all these men that I knew and the struggles that they led.  We are really here standing on their shoulders. It’s really moving to me,” said Kleinbaum.

Michael Johnson, 81, and Michael Roberts, 55, together for more than 30 years, tied the knot at long last. When asked how Roberts popped the question, Johnson quickly asserted, “not on his knees.”  “I can’t get up when I get down,” added Roberts.

Roberts offered his view on the meaning of the occasion. “It means that history is going really fast. When we met, this day was unthinkable. The language didn’t exist to explain it. All we need to do is mobilize this energy and the next great step is to get rid of DOMA. What marriage is suddenly dissolved today because Michael and I got married?”

While celebrants beamed throughout the day, many were conscious that the fight for equality was not over. DOMA prevents married same-sex couples from receiving more than 1,100 federal rights that come with heterosexual marriage. Under DOMA, married same-sex couples in any of the seven jurisdictions where it’s legal—New York, Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia— are still denied federal protections such as immigration rights.

The law prohibits U.S. citizens from sponsoring their non-citizen partner for residency through marriage. “As thrilled as I am to be here today, and as hard as I worked on marriage equality in New York myself, we still don’t have federal rights. Without those I can’t marry my partner,” said Todd Fernandez, one of many witnesses to the marriage festivities. “Repeal DOMA. That is what we need. Without it they can kick him out.”

Due to a lack of federal protections, divorce is even more complicated, and in some cases not possible. How can a same sex couple married in New York, dissolve their marriage if they move to a state that does not recognize their marriage? Without federal protections, questions such as these are taken up at a case by case level by courts often ill prepared to address these issues and with little certainty to the couple. Experts advise that knowing your rights is crucial and prenuptial agreements are advised.

Lieutenant Daniel Choi, a vigorous advocate for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and for LGBT equality, served as a bridesmaid at his friend Jeanette Coleman’s wedding ceremony. Said Choi, “it’s a vindication. It’s a very hard fought battle that has now been victoriously won. Jeanette…was kicked out of the army because of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. There is something special about having been a soldier on the front lines of war and now being on the front lines of love and justice. There is no better fight to be involved in.”

MENY board president Cathy Marino, who has been working tirelessly to realize marriage equality in New York, just wanted to enjoy the day. “Today is a great day. I’m helping a lot of my friends get married today. I have been working on this for 13 years. It’s a joyous occasion!” she said. “We’re gonna go federal after this. But I’m taking the month of August off.  After that, we’re on! I already sent President Obama a little message asking him to make up the guest room… I’m coming in!”

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