Reporting from this previous article contributed to the following story.
Charlottesville Circuit Court Clerk Llezelle Dugger is used to hectic mornings, but this Monday delivered something out of the ordinary. Dozens of cheering locals toting flowers, rainbow flags, and, in a few cases, birth certificates descended on her office around noon, ready to be part of history in the making. At about 1:05pm, minutes after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals gave the green light, Dugger issued a marriage license to Catherine Gillespie and André Hakes. They were the first same-sex couple to get one in Charlottesville—and most likely in the state of Virginia, based on reports out of other cities.
“How bizarre to wake up one morning and not know that you’re getting married,” said a beaming Gillespie less than half an hour later on the courthouse steps, where she and Hakes had proceeded to say their vows before retired judge Jannene Shannon and an entourage of friends and supporters.
“I’m exuberant,” Gillespie said. “It’s a beautiful and wonderful day.”
Not to mention surprising. The Supreme Court had announced just hours before that it was turning away appeals from five states seeking to uphold gay marriage bans. One of those appeals was in the case of Bostic v. Schaefer, a suit brought by a gay couple in the Eastern District of Virginia against court officials who refused to marry them. The Fourth Circuit ruled on that case in July, striking down Virginia’s gay marriage ban in a 2-1 ruling. But legal unions were put on hold when the Supreme Court issued a stay of the ruling pending an appeal. The wait ended Monday, thanks to the justices’ decision not to hear that appeal—or appeals from similar cases in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin.
The country’s highest court may yet hear future gay marriage cases, and the outcome of such a case is far from certain. Some are hailing today’s non-decision decision a tacit victory, underscoring the fact that there has been no Supreme Court ruling that expressly grants gay couples the right to marry in the U.S.
And not everybody was celebrating the justice’s refusal to hear existing appeals. Victoria Cobb, president of the Richmond-based Family Foundation of Virginia said in a statement that the organization was “disappointed” that the court “sidestepped this important issue, at least for now, and left Virginians without a definitive answer.” She said that the more than one million voters who voted in favor of the state’s gay marriage ban had been disenfranchised by the move.
“Until the Supreme Court makes a final determination, we will continue to advocate for natural marriage because children deserve, whenever possible, to have both a mom and a dad,” Cobb said. “And we will work with the General Assembly to ensure that, while same-sex marriage is legal in Virginia, the rights and freedoms of those who disagree with the redefinition of marriage are treated equally and are not discriminated against in their religious practice, education, business or employment.”
But in a conference call with reporters from around the country, Ted Olson, lead counsel in the Bostic case, called Monday an exciting and historic day in Virginia, and one that’s been on the way since the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act in June of last year.
Since then, he said, “federal judge after federal judge, district trial judges and appellate judges, have almost uniformly struck down bans on marriage equality.” It’s a legal victory that feels personal, he said. “To see the justices recognize in this way the love of these individuals and the happiness they’re soon going to be able to express—it’s the highlight of my life.”
For several of the half-dozen couples who received marriage licenses from the Charlottesville court Monday, it also meant the promise of a security they’d previously been denied.
“It means a lot for us,” said Landon Wilkins, who was in the clerk’s office with his partner Jaime Justice to watch the issuance of the first license and get their own questions answered. He and Justice had already been married in Washington, D.C. But Wilkins, who is transgendered, still has a birth certificate that says he’s female, which meant their marriage wasn’t recognized by Virginia. Now, the couple said, Wilkins will be able to adopt Justice’s son.
Second-parent adoption was a big part of why Meridith Wolnick and Debra Guy made a point of being next in line for a marriage license after Hakes and Gillespie. They had a commitment ceremony in 2005, but made a point of waiting to get married until their home state legalized gay unions. They wanted their daughter, Ruby, now 4, to have two legal parents.
After getting their hopes dashed earlier this summer, the announcement that they could get married was “a complete surprise,” said Wolnick. Knowing that the Supreme Court’s denial of petitions opens the door to same-sex unions in 30 states made the day even more special, she said. And the fact that there’s still a chance the court could rule against them in future cases didn’t stop them from pulling Ruby from school, putting on the wedding clothes they’d bought for the eventual occasion, and rallying family and friends.
“I’m not going to let that looming possibility take the wind out of our sails,” said Guy.
The milestone came sooner than expected for Gillespie and Hakes, too. For years, they have visited the Circuit Court Clerk’s office on Valentine’s Day to request a marriage license—a symbolic act they came to see as increasingly important as the marriage equality debate heated up across the country.
“I can remember the time when we had the conversation, that we were quite convinced that people would have to wheel us down the aisle by the time Virginia made this legal,” Gillespie told a pack of reporters in the moments after their ceremony, “so I’m quite pleased to still be able to walk to my own wedding.”
Hakes nodded in agreement as people around them laughed. “It might have been you I told,” she said, turning to her wife, “that I was going to be slurping Jell-O off a tray, but I was going to get married.”