Terrence Hall and Christopher DeCaria of Charlotte expected a mob Monday when the Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds office began issuing Charlotte’s first-ever marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples.
So the pair showed up at 6:45 a.m. – an hour and 15 minutes early – and stood impatiently at the front door as the sun came up. Already ahead of them was a cluster of television and newspaper reporters, intent on covering what was being called a turning point in state history.
Over the next eight hours, dozens more followed them through the door, helping to set a single-day record for Mecklenburg County: 86 marriage licenses issued, with 62 for same-sex couples. Wake County issued about three dozen licenses to same-sex couples Monday, after giving out 51 on Friday night.
“I didn’t think this day would come in North Carolina for a long time,” said DeCaria, noting that the two men had been a couple for five years and engaged for two years.
“Having the state recognize us as a couple is like being recognized by everyone. It feels like we’re being validated and accepted. It feels like we’re finally being treated like normal people.”
The couple received their license shortly after 8 a.m. and were officially married an hour later, during one of an estimated 35 ceremonies performed for same-sex couples in the courtyard outside the register’s uptown office.
Many of those ceremonies were carried out simultaneously by ministers coordinated in advance by Equality NC, an advocacy group that helped lead the battle to legalize same-sex marriage in the state.
There was no official statewide count released Monday, but it’s likely a few hundred same-sex couples received licenses in the state’s 100 counties. In the Charlotte area, three each applied in Lincoln and Union counties, six each in Gaston and Cabarrus, and seven in Catawba County. None applied in Iredell County.
Nancy Kraft, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, performed Mecklenburg County’s largest ceremony of the day, officiating five marriages at once outside the register’s office.
She said many same-sex couples were in a hurry to wed out of fear that more legal obstacles would arise in coming days. She was part of a group of religious leaders who filed a challenge to North Carolina’s Amendment One, claiming it infringed on religious freedom. Several of those married Monday were members of her congregation.
“To be honest, we’re nervous about the window of opportunity and how fast it will close,” Kraft said before the ceremony. “We want to get it done, because we don’t know if what happened in South Carolina will happen here.”
Last week, two probate judges in South Carolina accepted marriage license applications and said they intended to issue licenses as soon as the 24-hour waiting period passed. But the S.C. Supreme Court blocked the licenses, saying the state must wait for a federal lawsuit to play out there.
State bans on same-sex marriages began falling like dominoes last week, after an unexpected Supreme Court decision not to intervene in appellate rulings that struck down bans in Virginia and four other states. Six more states were affected because they are in the same federal court circuits, including both Carolinas.
On Sunday, a judge overturned a gay marriage ban in Alaska, which was the first state in the nation to ban such unions with a constitutional amendment. North Carolina was the last in the nation in May 2012.
Reminders of opposition surfaced repeatedly during the wedding ceremonies performed Monday in uptown. One quiet retiree greeted couples at 8 a.m. with a 3-by-3-foot damning placard, and a tag team of other protesters showed up throughout the day to scream criticism at couples during their weddings. One even danced a mock jig as the Charlotte Pride Band played the Wedding March.
Brief moments of tension were defused by cheers and applause for the couples, and spontaneous renditions of the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.”
“No hard feelings,” said Sharon Becker of Concord, who wed her partner of 17 years, Vickie. “We know it will take awhile for everyone to get behind this. It’s the Bible Belt. We just figure we deserve a chance to love each other like anyone else.”
Mecklenburg wasn’t the first in the state to issue licenses to gay couples. That distinction goes to Wake, Guilford and Buncombe counties, where Register of Deeds offices worked late Friday to accommodate people who’d been waiting for the U.S. District Court decision that made it clear the Supreme Court action applies here.
The Guilford County register of deeds faced criticism for the decision Monday from a conservative county commissioner who questioned his authority to do so. In Mecklenburg County, a vote by the county commissioners is required to make adjustments to the register of deeds schedule, local officials said.
David Granberry, the Mecklenburg County register of deeds, said Monday went off without a hitch, thanks to two extra staffers transferred from other departments for the rush.
He also crafted his own gender-neutral application form in advance. Registers in some smaller counties were forced to rely on a new form sent out by the state, which some complained arrived too late Sunday to be fully computerized by Monday morning.
Many of the couples who showed up Monday for a license had actually had ceremonies before but needed to make it legal in North Carolina to share their state and federal benefits.
Kat Harris, who was second in line behind Hall and DeCaria, said this is the third ceremony she’s gone through with the same woman.
“My wife is getting tired of getting married and she’s upset, but I told her: ‘I love you and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you’re taken care of if I die,’ ” Harris said. “I want her to get everything I’ve worked for.”
The 62 who got licenses Monday included people of many races and a wide range of ages, from early 20s to well past retirement. Three couples said they had been together nearly 40 years and one was old enough to have great-grandchildren from a previous marriage.
Two Marshville women wed by Kraft said they had one of the most enduring relationships, lasting 39 years. But they were also an example of the fear many older gay and lesbian couples still have in North Carolina.
“I don’t want to give my name, because we don’t want to be vandalized by our neighbors and I don’t want my family to be harassed,” said one of the two, noting some of their own relatives won’t speak to them.
“She (her partner) was in the hospital in 1983, and I couldn’t even go in the room because I wasn’t a blood relative. I’ve been threatened on jobs, too, when they found out, and treated terrible. A lot has changed, but that fear for the people you care about is tough to let go of.”
The pair say their love endured because they stayed best friends in even the worst of times. And for that they were willing to risk being “out” Monday, if only for a five-minute wedding ceremony.
“We’re not spring chickens,” she said, “so we decided not to wait another day.”