Update: Today, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Sarah Zabel has lifted a stay on her decision to invalidate Florida's prohibition of gay marriage, which means Miami-Dade County is the first place in the state to have marriage equality.
Friday night, Aaron Huntsman and his partner, William "Lee" Jones, relaxed in their Key West home. They ordered Chinese food and debated which movie to rent. Despite the calm, in just a few days these self-proclaimed "average joes" will be among the first same-sex couples to be married in Florida.
On July 17, the couple became part of history when Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia struck down the state's ban on gay marriage in Huntsman v. Heavlin, declaring it unconstitutional. The ruling was the first one handed down by a Florida circuit court.
Though Garcia stayed the effects of his ruling until a higher court affirmed it, the couple was thrust immediately into the limelight. All the major news agencies wanted to interview them, and they quickly became local celebrities. However, this past summer, the last thing Huntsman and Jones were expecting was to make national news. They simply wanted to get married.
After meeting more than a decade ago at Key West's PrideFest, the same year Gilbert Baker's 1.25-mile rainbow flag debuted on Duval Street, the couple fell in love. Unfortunately, though the relationship was star-crossed, it was essentially invisible in the eyes of the law.
On January 1, U.S. Federal Court Judge Robert Hinkle ordered that all Florida clerks comply with his ruling in Brenner v. Scott and no longer enforce Florida's gay marriage ban once his stay on the case is lifted January 6. That's tomorrow.
In light of the news, and having already completed the state-required premarital course, Huntsman and Jones went to the clerk's office January 2 and filled out the application for their marriage license. They beamed with pride as radiantly as the sun shone outside.
The certificate, which still had not yet been adapted to gay verbiage, lists Jones as groom and Huntsman as bride.
However, the license was not finalized. Not wanting to disrespect the federal court, Monroe County Clerk of Court Amy Heavlin did not sign it. However, her office is poised to issue a finalized license at a special midnight event today to celebrate the commencement of marriage equality in Florida.
"Technically, she cannot sign it before the stay is lifted," Huntsman says. "Also, [Heavlin] might be out of town for vacation on the sixth, so one of the assistant clerks at the midnight event may just stamp her name."
The clerk's office is prepared to allow the first 100 same-sex couples who come in the chance to finally tie the knot. Everyone else will be able to apply for marriage licenses the next day during normal business hours.
Though their "spiritual wedding" is not planned until this summer, mainly because of the financial straits the couple is enduring after crusading for marriage equality for the past year, Huntsman and Jones are going ahead now with a more earthly ceremony. Rev. Steve Torrence will preside once they obtain their license from clerk's office.
"It is an honor to be part of their celebration," says Torrence, who leads Metropolitan Community Church Key West. "Aaron and Lee have been together for 12 years in a loving and committed relationship; they want to honor their relationship by getting married. They have fought the fight, and I'm very proud of them."
The two are overjoyed that they will "finally" be legally recognized as a couple by the state they call home. After years of being bullied by gay-hating groups for loving each other, this Tuesday they will be married on the steps of the Monroe County Courthouse after swapping handmade silver rings under the full moon for all the world to see.
"I feel relieved and very grateful to our legal team and supporters. By being married, we will feel socially accepted by the state," says Huntsman, his blue eyes sparkling. "Though this is a major step for our constitutional rights, the LGBT community also has to remember that there are still many things we need to continue fighting for. We cannot stop until every person in every state is treated equally."
As the third most populous state, Florida has one of the largest LGBT communities in the nation, with the Williams Institute suggesting a population close to a half-million. Same-sex couples who wish to be married span the state.
In Palm Beach County, Heather Brassner, who was part of a handful of high-profile cases challenging the state's ban, cannot wait to marry her girlfriend, Jennifer Feagin. After divorcing her estranged spouse last month, Brassner now hopes to put an end to the frustrations of her past relationship and focus on her new blossoming love.
"I'm excited to finally be able to marry my other half, Jennifer," Brassner says. "I feel safe, loved unconditionally, and complete with her. She and I are going to do the online course and then apply for a marriage license after Tuesday."
Photo by Ian Witlen
Brassner and Feagin, along with countless other couples across the Sunshine State, will now have the hundreds of rights afforded to married couples, ranging from the right of inheriting property to collecting a deceased spouse's social security benefits.
"This fight for equality has been centered on the rights that we are denied because we were not able to be married, such as hospital visitations, the right to make medical decisions, and [Jennifer's] ability to stay in our home if something were to happen to me. I feel privileged and honored to be part of the progress for equality."
In Miami-Dade, the six plaintiff couples in the Pareto v. Ruvin lawsuit, which was merged with Huntsman in appeals court, are exuberant that the new year has begun with marriage equality coming to the Sunshine State.
"It has almost been a year since we started this case, and to begin 2015 with marriage equality is something we had hoped for!" says Vanessa Alenier. "We are so excited this day has finally come for same-sex couples to be treated equally in Florida. This week I will apply for a marriage license with Melanie, the woman I love. As far as the official ceremony, we want it to be special and not rushed because it is the second most important day for us, the birth of [our 5-year-old son] Ethan being the most important day ever."
Vanessa, who grew up in Homestead, did not believe she would live to see this day. As a youngster, she felt her dreams of marrying another woman were impossible and kept her same-sex attraction quietly to herself.
"This is something I never thought would happen in my lifetime. Since I was a teenager, I believed I would never be able to marry whomever it was I fell in love with. But I was wrong!" she says, grinning ear to ear. "I'm so happy to be a part of this movement and witness this incredible time. After nine years together, I'm excited to call Melanie my wife!"
One week after Garcia's ruling, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Sarah Zabel also struck down Florida's ban in Pareto, declaring it unconstitutional because it violated the 14th Amendment's due process and equal protection clauses. She, like Garcia, placed a stay on her order on allowing same-sex couples to marry until a higher court affirmed the ruling. With Hinkle's decision in Brenner, other coplaintiffs in Pareto believe Zabel's stay might be lifted quickly.
"We'll be at the Miami Courthouse hearing on Monday, hoping that Judge Zabel lifts her stay from the bench, which would mean we could apply and marry the same day," says Todd Delmay, who has endured the emotional, yearlong court journey with his partner, Jeff. "At the very latest, we'll go on January 15 to apply and marry because that is our current 'anniversary' date already."
Like the Aleniers, the Delmays want to protect their family, which includes their 4-year-old son, Blake. They are relieved that this month they will be able to obtain the rights given to married couples.
"I hope everyone is ready, that they've taken their premarital courses, and that the sheer volume of couples getting married will demonstrate the #LoveIsLouder movement," says Todd Delmay. "For too long, too many people have been barred from the institution of marriage, and real harm has been done to real families in Florida. However, that can now end, and we can write new stories about the importance of marriage to all families."
It was because of these prohibitions that James Brenner and his husband, Charles "Chuck" Jones (they were married out of state), along with with coplaintiffs Stephen Schlairet and Ozzie Russ, challenged the state's ban at the federal level. Their case was the one that brought marriage equality to Florida.
"All the work we [the plaintiffs] and our attorneys put into this effort is very small in comparison to the monumental impact it is going to have beginning on Tuesday," Brenner says. "We believe that soon, very soon, same-sex marriages will simply be called marriages."
Though marriage equality has come to Florida this week, the state is still appealing Hinkle's ruling in Brenner v. Scott, and it is possible the constitutionality of gay marriage could be reversed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals or by the U.S. Supreme Court if it takes up a related case. However, for now at least, the LGBT community across Florida is celebrating, with parties and cookouts planned from the Keys to the Panhandle.
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"I am filled with so much joy that all Floridians are now able to marry and will be afforded the protections of being so," Brassner concludes. "In my eyes, the Sunshine State just got a little brighter as marriage equality is ushered in."
Florida will become the 36th U.S. state to legally recognize same-sex couples. At midnight, marriage equality will have come to about 70 percent of Americans.