Tears and Cheers

Historic First Day of Marriage Equality in New York

After years of advocacy, political pushback and hope against the odds, same-sex couples across New York State married legally for the first time on Sunday, July 24.

The celebrations came exactly 30 days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Marriage Equality Act into law, coincidentally on the eve of LGBT Pride weekend. Because July 24 was a Sunday, couples initially thought they had to wait an additional day for city clerk offices to open Monday morning as usual. But government officials in New York City soon decided to open the clerk’s offices on Sunday due to extraordinary demand for marriage licenses.

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. 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. As each couple mounted the steps they were met with a barrage of flashes and cheers of congratulations.

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 and Mimi Brown were also among the first couples to tie the knot on Sunday. After 20 years 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 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.

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 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, a veteran social justice advocate, was finally able to legally marry gay and lesbian couples. “I’m very excited to have lived to see this day,” she said.

“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.”

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.

Marriage Equality New York board president Cathy Marino-Thomas, 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. I already sent President Obama a little message asking him to make up the guest room… I’m coming in!”

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