On the day Washington finally allowed them to apply for a marriage license, Margaret Witt and Laurie Johnson woke up before dawn to be first in line.
They arrived at the Spokane County Courthouse in the dark on Dec. 6, 2012, and stood on the front steps. Other same-sex couples joined them during the next few hours. TV crews and photographers hovered around the crowd as everyone waited for the doors to open.
When they swung forward, Witt and Johnson walked down the white-tiled hallway, turned into the auditor’s office and started filling out forms at the marriage license counter. They wrote down birthdays, scribbled signatures and paid the $55 fee while the crowd watched silently.
At that moment, the 48-year-old Witt and 54-year-old Johnson had been a couple for nine years.
They’d been together when Witt, a former Air Force major and flight nurse, successfully challenged the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which banned gays and lesbians from serving openly.
In the run-up to Dec. 6, they’d been outspoken proponents of Referendum 74, the statewide ballot measure that legalized same-sex marriage. Nearly 54% of Washington voters supported the measure during the 2012 general election, although 56% of Spokane County voters opposed it.
Witt and Johnson got their license to wed at five seconds before 8:29 a.m. Fred Perez, a recording specialist with the auditor’s office, handed them the piece of paper and the silence gave way to cheers.
“There was just this roar in those halls,” said Victor Rapez-Betty, who, along with his husband Brandon was one of the 23 same-sex couples to receive a marriage license that day. “Everybody was celebrating.”
Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said Dec. 6 was the best day she’s had during her 24 years heading the office.
“That’s the one day that I will always remember the clearest and the best,” she said. “It was a day of joy and relief for so many people.”
Joy, hugs and tears dominated the day, but many who received their marriage licenses 10 years ago struggled to explain the complex mixture of emotions they felt.
“I’m not sure I have the words for it,” said Michelle Booth, who has been with her spouse Gretchen Emrich since 1979. “It was one of the best days of my life.”
Nina Stocker was pregnant with her second son when she and her spouse Chari Parker went to get their marriage license. Stocker, who had helped with phone banking efforts to get same-sex marriage legalized, said she knew she was taking part in an historic event.
“I do remember it actually feeling like a concrete step forward, which is a really strange thing to try to capture. I don’t know how to explain that feeling,” she said. “That moment of feeling seen, and understood, and getting invited into something you hadn’t been a part of before and hadn’t been allowed to be a part of.”
Some people who got their marriage licenses on Dec. 6 had never dared to hope they could get married.
“To actually realize, for me, that I could be married to who I loved, that had never been a reality so I pushed that way back in my head,” Witt said. “I had to figure out other ways to be secure in a relationship.”
Witt, who was discharged from the Air Force after her superiors learned she was a lesbian, said it had always felt unjust to her that same-sex couples couldn’t marry.
“I could walk in with some guy I met the day before and get a marriage license,” she said. “That just seems so unfair and wrong.”
Getting a marriage license wasn’t merely an emotional decision for same-sex couples on Dec. 6. The piece of paper came with critical legal advantages, too.
For years, same-sex couples missed out on the hundreds of benefits afforded to married, opposite-sex couples, such as filing joint tax returns and having the deed to a house in multiple names.
“It took care of a whole bunch of stuff,” said Emrich. “It took care of estate planning, it took care of being able to medically have information about your spouse. … It opened a whole bunch of avenues that most people take for granted.”
Con Mealey, who on Dec. 6, 2012, had been with his husband Greg Richards for more than 30 years, agreed.
“All of the sudden, everything becomes easier,” Mealey said. “You’re just living a tenuous life, but now it’s all covered, everything’s legal.”
Brandon Rapez-Betty said that, from an emotional standpoint, the marriage license didn’t mean a whole lot to him and his husband. They’d gotten married a few months earlier, even if the government didn’t recognize it.
“It didn’t really do anything to reinforce our love or commitment to one another because that had already been done,” he said. “It did give us assurance that we were protected, the same as everyone else in Washington state.”
The legal landscape around same-sex marriage has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. More states allowed it and, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to same-sex marriage was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, legalizing it in all 50 states.
Last week, the U.S. Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act in an effort to codify the right to same-sex marriage. The U.S. House of Representatives could pass the bill in the coming days.
Couples who got their marriage licenses at the Spokane County Courthouse a decade ago said they believe America has become more tolerant of same-sex relationships, but they added caveats.
Mealey, who lives with Richards in Post Falls, pointed out that Idaho Republican senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo voted against the Respect for Marriage Act. Victor Rapez-Betty said some people are still momentarily taken aback when he tells them he has a husband.
Still, many said attitudes are trending in the right direction as more people have openly gay friends and family members.
“You don’t have to explain yourself like you used to,” Booth said.
Richards said he’s seen a generational shift throughout the decades. He explained that his uncle was effectively ostracized from the family for being gay.
“We were always told, ‘Hey, guess what, your uncle – we don’t talk about it. Don’t be with him alone,’ ” Richards said. “How terrible that he had to live that life.”
It was easier for Richards, but he still faced challenges. He and Mealey felt they couldn’t have children because they feared their kids would be bullied in school. Even on the day he got his marriage license, Richards worried protesters at the courthouse would shout homophobic slurs at him – none showed up – or one of his Spokane Community College students would see him.
Slowly, America has progressed, Richards said.
“Today I have a nephew and he and his husband are married. They’re looking to have children,” he said. “What a beautiful change in life. That’s three generations.”
Witt, who hopes to take Johnson on a vacation somewhere warm as an anniversary gift, said her marriage is “solid as a rock” 10 years in.
“You don’t know what you don’t have when you are forced to be without it,” she said. “This is what it’s like to be whole and have the same abilities as other families.”
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