Never have I experienced such profundity and beauty as in the expressions of love I witnessed on February 9, 2015, when marriage equality reached several counties in my home state of Alabama.
The probate judges of the other counties remain in their religious backed bigotry, as ordered by Alabama Chief Justice (and wannabe pastor) Roy Moore. But among the counties taking the big step in the direction of progress was, Montgomery County. When my fiancé, Stacey Morris, was contacted by members of the ACLU Alabama and asked to come to Montgomery to show the support, we sprang into action. That Sunday night was spent making signs and preparing for a long day and at 7:00 am we left our small duplex in Opelika and set out for Montgomery.
It was my intention to only stay until 1:00 pm as I had to be at work at midnight. But, the positive atmosphere and overwhelming energy of the day would keep me there long after that.
Born a straight man in the southeastern US, I never thought I would some day be standing in front of a courthouse holding a gay pride sign, while debating with a Christian on the validity of scripture. But, 8:15 am found me in exactly that place.
I was invited into a discussion with David Day, the lone protester, and for well over an hour we “argued” over the existence of God and the credibility of the bible. David is a Christian fundamentalist, and I am an atheist. My position is that I see no empirical evidence supporting the existence of any God or Gods, especially the God of the bible. David’s position seems to be the bible, as translated by Ray Comfort.
I attempted several times to get his personal thoughts and feelings on what was happening that day, but they always routed back to the bible. For almost an hour and a half we talked, and though we do not agree I will say this, I’ll take David Day over a Fred Phelps any time. He wasn’t mean or outright hateful; he was actually quite polite in his biblical bigotry.
But I can’t help feeling sorry for David, and anyone else who disregards human emotions at the command of obsolete words of ancient books, written by goat herders who thought the earth was flat.
All that suppression must be difficult. I am, however, glad that David deserted his 5-days-a-week protest post at a women’s health clinic, to come down and talk with me.
The rest of the day was spent meeting some truly amazing people. One of the youngest couples to be married that day was Megan Hilton, 19 and Jordan Robbins, 22. They wanted to get married simply because they deeply loved one another. It’s a fact apparent to anyone who is around them for more than five minutes, but most apparent to Jordan’s mother, Kimberly Zenke. Kimberly and her husband, Leo, accompanied the couple in support of their daughter and new daughter in law. Support that has renewed my faith in humanity.
“I’m a believer,” Kimberly said, referring to God, “but their love is real.”
She went on to say that Megan’s love has healed her daughter, that they have healed each other and that she could not imagine standing in the way of that love. Quite a few protester voices have been heard mentioning family values. Well, in my opinion a better example of family values than this, there is not.
Throughout the day, couples cycled through the courthouse receiving applause from their supporters. Then emerged a pair of big, burly men sporting beards that ZZ Top could have admired. I sprinted over to them — I had to meet these guys, and I’m so glad I did.
John Bales, 71 and Wade Tinney, 51 have been together for 17 years. They’ve been more than life partners however, they’ve also been business partners. In 1998, they opened Alabama’s first gay campground together. Black Bear Camp Men’s Retreat is a 33-acre resort in Geneva Alabama catering to gay naturists.
In October of 2000, the Associated Press reported that the patrons of the resort were, “typically the rugged type beards, bellies,” and that football was the scene at Black Bear Camp. John was quoted in saying, “probably fifty percent of our customers are married, or divorced with kids…we don’t get the flamboyant type.”
John began buying property for the camp in 1982 as a retirement plan. He and his partner Wade operated the resort for over 16 years, until they retired in November of 2014. The farewell letter to their customers posted on the Black Bear website is a testament of the lasting relationships forged in the Alabama wilderness.
“We have enjoyed our sixteen year and three month run and will forever treasure the good friends and good times…Of all the things I have done in my life, providing this resource for other gay men is one of the proudest. But as a wise man said, everything which cannot last forever will end. For Black Bear Camp that time has come. Good bye and good will, Hugs.”
I’m truly happy to say that John and Wade are no longer simply partners or business partners, they are a married couple recognized by the state of Alabama. And while it’s sad that it took this long, it was a great day for these big, burly guys.
Amongst the supporters, the few protesters, and the people conducting their day-to-day business, was a strong police presence. In light of the recent violence and death linked to law enforcement across the nation, I was a bit nervous walking up to the courthouse that morning. But as the day carried on, my nerves were settled. The level of professionalism, common courtesy, and neutrality displayed by the Montgomery police department was the epitome of protection and service.
By the end of the day, I had no idea if the personal opinions of the officers on duty there were in support or protest of gay marriage. That fact alone tells me that law enforcement in Montgomery is a cut above the rest. I wish this country had more men and women like them behind the badge.
Stacey and I met some fun and interesting people throughout the day, but none more so than Mr. Paul Hard. In 2011, Paul and his partner, David Fancher, traveled to Massachusetts to be married legally. Sadly, three months later David was killed in a car accident on I-65. I couldn’t imagine losing the woman I love, but when Paul received his husband’s death certificate the marital status read, “never married.”
The state of Alabama may as well have slapped him in the face. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, they have been working for the past four years to have this changed and on Monday morning, Paul was handed his husband’s amended death certificate recognizing their marriage.
But Paul had more business to which to attend that day. From 8:00 am until the last couple came through at almost 5:00 pm, Paul was available to officiate weddings. In fact, he officiated the second legal same-sex marriage in Alabama. Between ceremonies, Paul could be found chatting with supporters and inviting people to the ACLU reception. His warm attitude and hilarious antics had people flocking to him all day.
By the end of the night, Stacey and I made a decision we didn’t expect to make. As a couple of atheists we were wondering who we could find to perform our wedding ceremony. Later that night at the reception it hit me, and we asked if Paul would be willing. Smiling, he said “I would love to.”
The mass reception, put on by the ACLU, was held at a Montgomery lounge called Cru. At around 9:00 pm, several hours after I had planned to be home, a couple of older ladies exchanged their vows outside of the lounge under a lit alter. Just before the ceremony began, the onlookers were asked to move in close.
“You’re all family, get in here with us!” they said.
Tears streamed down my face as I witnessed their long-awaited legal union. I thought of the struggle these couples have endured; being told that their relationships weren’t valid. But in Alabama, it seems this struggle is lessening with the final words of the day:
“By the power vested in me by the Universal Life Church and FINALLY the state of Alabama, I now pronounce you, wife and wife.”