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First same-sex couples marry in York County: ‘They love each other, that’s what counts’

Larry Goforth stood in the cold just a few minutes after 8 a.m. Friday – wearing a Carhartt work suit, holding hands with his wife, Sylvia – to witness the first same-sex marriage in York County history.

Bandana on his head, bushy beard, working man’s callused hands, tattoo on his left ring finger. He’s York County born and bred, tough and strong and conservative – and here he was at tiny Moore Park to watch his baby brother Mike Goforth get married to another man, Jim Strickland.

Not everybody in the big Goforth family – or in York County – approves, Larry Goforth said.

But big brother sure does.

“My brother, I love him,” Larry Goforth said. “Always been there for me in my life. We gotta have happiness in the world. Mike and Jim, they love each other; that’s what counts.”

The grooms held hands. A truck rumbled past. Two York police officers showed up, not to stop the proceedings with handcuffs and legal documents, but to make sure everybody was fine – proof the world had not ended as two men stood holding hands, poised to get married.

Maureen Faulkenberry, a pastor from outside York, maroon robe flowing, gray hair flying, conducted the short service.

The men, together 18 years, exchanged rings, vows and a kiss, and were officially the first gay couple to legally marry in York County.

“I am thrilled to be the first,” said Strickland, 60, who has adult children and grandchildren. Married exactly one minute, he was asked what marriage felt like.

“Marriage is wonderful,” he exclaimed, as any spouse in any new marriage would.

Goforth, 46, said his marrying the man he loves is no different than a man and woman tying the knot.

“We love each other and want to spend the rest of our lives together, legally,” Goforth said. “That’s what weddings are all about.”

The couple’s wedding came a day after 10 same-sex couples in York County – and three in Lancaster County and one in Chester County – applied for marriage licenses following a long, bitter and very public legal and political battle over gay marriage. Courts weighed in, the outcry for and against gay marriage involved all branches of government and religious beliefs and social values.

But a federal judge ruled the state’s ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a last-ditch appeal from South Carolina’s attorney general.

Gay marriage – all over the news for days, weeks, months – is now legal no matter who likes it or doesn’t.

“Who would have ever thought our wedding would be news?” Strickland said. “But I guess it is...we made history today.”

The wedding is theirs, Goforth said, but the couple knows it also belongs to every same-sex couple that wants to be together legally.

“It’s an honor to be first,” Goforth said, “but just as important is, we won’t be the last.”

Just minutes after Goforth and Strickland were married, a female same-sex couple tied the knot in the same park, with the same pastor. Private, quiet. No earthquake to show that York County was doomed.

Several other same-sex couples picked up their marriage licenses on Friday – signed by probate judges, as legal as a dollar bill and any contract anywhere – after the state’s 24-hour waiting period from application acceptance to licensing.

Some of the couples came in to the York County Probate Court later to pick up their licenses and get on with their lives. Kelly and Stephanie Hawkins, planning a February wedding, picked up the paper that said they could legally be married.

“A great day,” said Stephanie Hawkins.

Other couples, private, just wanting the same rights as any couple, picked up papers and left. The Christmas wreaths in downtown York, the county seat, stayed up on light poles. The famous city clock on Congress Street ticked. Gay marriage had not brought calamity or strife. Not a single protester.

Certainly, many in York County have concerns over gay marriage, personal beliefs and religious beliefs that are important to people. But the law now in South Carolina is that gay marriage is legal, so gays got married.

Nobody protested when Doug Gilbert and John Saletel of Rock Hill picked up their marriage license. The couple has been together since Thanksgiving Day 1968.

Next week is their 46th anniversary. Friday was their first day of official marriage.

The ceremony, starting a minute before noon, was held at the wedding chapel owned and operated by Faulkenberry – York County’s busiest wedding officiant on Friday. She has an indoor chapel on her property, complete with flowers and a sign that proclaims, “Just Married!”

There were no wedding bells. Faulkenberry is Native American, so she played a Native American chant over a stereo.

Gilbert and Saletel held hands during the ceremony. Tears flowed from Gilbert’s eyes. Faulkenberry handed over a tissue without missing even a word. She used the words “love” and “commitment” and “joy.”

Saletel held Gilbert’s wavering hands to steady him, as those who love one another do when nerves and emotions and tears of joy come out.

The two men looked at each other when the ceremony was over and embraced. Faulkenberry told them they were free to kiss.

And they did.

Way out in the country, Saletel said, “Wow, we just got married.”

Gilbert knew they were not the first same-sex couple to be married in York County. He didn’t care about being first, as long as the wedding was done – and legal.

“Thank God for this day,” Gilbert said.

“God is right here with you,” Faulkenberry replied plainly, “and you were just married before him.”

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