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We Attended Central Florida's First Legal Gay Marriage Ceremonies

Florida being Florida, the weddings featured matching white dress suits, Sea World Discovery Cove proposal stories, and conservative protesters.

by Erin Meisenzahl-Peace
Jan 6 2015, 3:11pm

Photo courtesy of Joey Thibodeaux and Kevin Foster. All other photos by the author

Two years ago, after Joey Thibodeaux and Kevin Foster watched a dolphin show at Discovery Cove in Orlando, Florida, animal trainers beckoned the two men into the water. A trained dolphin swam toward Joey clutching a wide buoy in its mouth. Joey took it and turned it over. "Joey, Marry Me?" it proposed. Joey said yes, and they vowed to spend the rest of their lives by each other's side.

But those vows weren't official until shortly after midnight Tuesday morning, when Foster and Thibodeaux and 27 other same-sex couples legally married in Osceola County, Florida, the second in a wave of Florida counties issuing the licenses after US District Court Judge ­­­­Robert Hinkle officially lifted a stay postponing the reversal of Florida's 2008 ban on same-sex marriage.

"It's peace of mind," Foster, 39, told me. "If one of us is in the hospital, the visitation rights thing is big. The state recognizes us as—" Thibodeaux cut him off: "It's real!"

Inside the Osceola County Courthouse , the office turned marriage hall hummed in anticipation. Security guards seemed happy to be working past midnight on a weekday. Outside, friends held signs in support of same-sex marriage, silently competing with about 20 protesters whose signs displayed messages like "Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman" and "Sodom and Gomorrah."

"What they're doing is sin," Osceola resident Barbara Jones said. "What they're doing, God hates." Complaining to me about what she sees as a recent decline of the American society, Jones said she worries about her six grandchildren's fate in a world where gays can marry.

Inside the courthouse, Osceola County clerk of court Armando Ramírez, a supporter of gay rights, led a packed room in a 10-second countdown before Osceola County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb and longtime partner Patti Daugherty became the commissioner and her wife.

"It's very easy to judge other people," Ramírez said as he waited for 12:01 to strike. "This nation has been evolving. You have demonstrated tenacity."

When Grieb and Daugherty exchanged their vows shortly after midnight, wearing embroidered matching white dress suits, they became the first couple to marry in Central Florida.

"I wanted to dramatize the waiting period," Ramírez said.

It's clear that Florida gay marriage opponents like Barbara Jones have lost. In a last-ditch effort to save the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, however, at least five Northern Florida counties have decided to cease all courthouse ceremony performances rather than perform them for same-sex couples.

Some claimed the ceremonies were an impractical use of taxpayer dollars, but others were less circumspect: "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman," Duval Clerk of Courts Ronnie Fussell told the Florida Times-Union. "Personally it would go against my beliefs to perform a ceremony that is other than that."

None of the members of his office felt comfortable officiating same-sex ceremonies, he said, so rather than discriminate, they decided to simply cut the practice for everyone.

Most Floridians feel comfortable with gay marriage, though. Although unconditional love between two adults freaked out more than 60 percent of Florida voters in 2008, when Florida Family Action's ballot initiative banning the marriages passed, that number has since dropped to 39 percent according to a 2014 Quinnipiac poll.

In the meantime, Florida's first married gay couples are preparing for their big ceremonies after their legal midnight weddings. To Kim Wagar and Janet Barchuk, the decision to marry Tuesday was only on paper, a show of support for their friends in white, Grieb and Daugherty. Their real wedding would come in a month, they said. They worry about wedding day complications, like any homo- or heterosexual couple would. When it comes, though, they'll be able to enjoy thrilling legal benefits like filing joint taxes and making the decision, if necessary, whether to pull the plug.

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