Pensacola, Florida
Monday March 25th 2019


“Finally We Can”

Marriage equality comes to Florida
By Jennifer Leigh

The first newsletter of the year for the Gay Grassroots of Northwest Florida was sent out over the weekend.

On the first page, in bold, black font read the headline “Finally we can.”

Since Jan. 6, same-sex couples in the state of Florida can now be legally married. That’s now 36 states in the U.S. that recognize same-sex marriage.

The ruling
Florida’s ruling wasn’t exactly cut and dry. In early December, news that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Florida’s stay to rule on same-sex marriage was released. Previously, a federal judge had already ruled the state’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. When the stay expired on Jan. 5, the inequality spell would be broken and couples could obtain marriage licenses the next day.

“The judges were on the right side of the issue,” said Doug Landreth, president of Gay Grassroots of Northwest Florida. “Although there are some leaders that are still behind the times.”

There was some confusion over whether the ruling had any power over the state. Lawyers for the Florida Association of Court Clerks Comptrollers had stated that only Washington County was named in the lawsuit. But on New Year’s Day, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that all Florida couples could receive a marriage license starting Jan. 6.

Florida is now the 36th state to recognize gay marriage. Since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the fall of 2011, it seems the entire country has continued to increase its support of the LGBT community—one of the fastest growing civil rights campaigns ever.

“What really brings it home is when you hear the stories of people, like Arlene Goldberg,” said Sara Latshaw, regional director of the ACLU of Florida.

Goldberg, who lives in Fort Myers, was featured in a Freedom to Marry video holding a photo of her late wife, Carol Goldwasser. Together for 47 years, Goldberg and Goldwasser married in New York in 2011. When her wife died in 2014, Goldberg was unable to collect her social security payments because their marriage wasn’t recognized by the state.

For same-sex couples who sought federal rights by getting married out of their home state, they too will be able to obtain state marriage licenses.

“No matter if you’re gay or straight, marriage equality is important,” Latshaw said. “It could be your neighbor, a friend or one of your loved ones.”

As the Director of Operations of Planting Peace, Davis Hammet has been living in the Equality House—a viral project of the nonprofit’s—since its inception in the spring of 2013.

From inside the rainbow-colored house in Topeka, Kansas, which sits directly across the street from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, Hammet has watched the rapid shift in gay rights support closely.

Hammet, who was born and raised in Destin, remembers feeling ashamed of his sexuality—he identifies himself as on the bisexual spectrum—growing up in the Bible Belt.

Seeing Florida become the latest state to recognize same-sex marriage is inevitable, he said, but still projects a positive message.

“It gives hope to people who really need hope,” he said.

At 24, Hammet isn’t looking to settle down yet, but says the right should always be there.

“I deserve to have access to any right that everyone in this country has access to,” he said.

Going to the chapel…or courthouse

Around this time last year, Pensacola couple Timothy Stark and Joey McCoy got engaged before a concert in Birmingham, Alabama. They planned on saving for a destination wedding in Washington state.

“He’s the first person I’ve ever felt this strongly about,” McCoy said. “He’s my partner, my best friend. You want that validation with a legal wedding.”

Now they don’t have to fly across the country just to have a legally-binding marriage. In fact, they opted for a short and sweet ceremony at the clerk of courts office and plan to “do it right” later on.

With family in Fort Walton Beach, they had thought of venturing two counties over to get their marriage license, but Clerk of Courts in Okaloosa County (as well as Santa Rosa, Duval, Baker and Clay) have put an end to their courthouse wedding ceremonies after Florida’s same-sex marriage ruling.

The couple took the four-hour pre-marital online course, which discounts the marriage license. When McCoy called ahead to make sure that Escambia County courts would perform the wedding, he was told to get there early.

“They were expecting to be busy that day,” he said.

Almost foreshadowing recent events, Holy Cross Metropolitan Community Church sent out a press release to announce the church would perform free weddings for LGBT couples once Florida ruled them legal.

In the Oct. 20 release it stated, “Rev. Dr. Jim Merritt believes these are the final days of discrimination against Florida same-sex partners and their families.”

Just a few months later, his prediction came true. Before the holiday season, he already had several couples lined up for wedding ceremonies on Jan. 6.

“I firmly believe same-sex couples deserve the same package of federal rights as every other couple,” he said.

Merritt has lived in Florida his entire life and became the senior pastor at Holy Cross MCC four months ago.

Growing up in a southern Baptist household as a young gay man had its share of contradictions, he was even sent to conversion therapy.

But Merritt refers to himself as one of the “lucky ones,” because he never felt that God didn’t love him. For the LGBT community that goes to Holy Cross MCC, he hopes to spread that message.

Before the holidays and weeks before the final ruling, Merritt said that he and his partner of 20 years will be joining in with those couples celebrating. But he’s taking care of everyone else first.

“I hope to be so busy Jan. 6 that my partner and I will have to wait a few days to be married,” he said. “We have tons of friends who are clergy who can help with our wedding.”

Ed and Sue Spencer of First Day Entertainment are also offering similar services. Their company will be providing free officiant services to same-sex couples on a first-come, first-served basis for six weeks (through Feb. 17).

Looking ahead
Generations who can recall seeing gay-rights opponent Anita Bryant on TV (Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi is often referred to as the modern day Bryant), will tell you that marriage wasn’t always on the gay rights to-do list.

“Years ago, you wouldn’t even dream of marriage,” Landreth said. “The first priority was avoiding being beaten or shot to death. Now there’s a whole new generation of youth who can have the landscape to dream.”

After Jan. 6 rolls around, after all of the wedding cakes and portraits, there’s still work to be done.

“We’re at a political crossroads now,” Landreth said. “What will we do once the marriage debate is final once and for all? High-five each other and head home?”

Beyond legal marriage, there are a lot of other issues that face the LGBT community including homelessness among youth, discrimination in the workplace and adoptive rights, Landreth said.

“We need to make sure we don’t get too intoxicated with victory,” he added. “There’s more work that needs to be done.”