By Jon Price
It’s not often that romance trumps bureaucracy.
But it did on Saturday.
As hundreds of couples braved the bitter cold to line up for hours outside of the Washtenaw County Clerk’s Office, which opened its doors at 9 a.m. to marry them, Washtenaw County Sheriff’s deputies walked up and down the lines, handing out applications and hurrying the ecstatic couples along.
The atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive, without a detractor in sight. Passersby honked and waved, others stopped and dropped off flowers or coffee to show their support.
Some of the couples exchanged wedding vows within minutes after getting their licenses.
“We’ve been here since 5:30 (a.m.),” Alexi Chapin-Smith said. “We’re hoping this will be a way for us to get legal recognition of our marriage, in our state.”
Alexi Chapin-Smith and her wife, Jennifer Chapin-Smith, chose to change their last names before they were legally wed, to signify their commitment to one another. The couple was the first to line up in front of the clerk’s office Saturday.
“But some of the other couples were here as early as yesterday,” Alexi Chapin-Smith said. “They cruised by various times in the night, like 2:30 (a.m.), to see if anyone was there.”
The Ann Arbor residents have been together for the past 14 years and asked local-government officials to consider opening the clerk’s office Saturday.
“There was a real scramble to talk to the clerk and ask him to open up today,” Jennifer Chapin-Smith said, “he was doing whatever it took. The sheriff’s department had to get a deputy here, staff had to come in on Saturday and it was not a simple matter.”
(Videos by James Saoud | Video Editor)
Amidst the blissful, celebratory atmosphere, some couples were feeling tense, knowing an injunction could be handed down from a high court that might possibly put a stop to the proceedings.
“If it were struck down and the piece of paper wasn’t worth anything for a while, eventually it will go to the Supreme Court,” Alexi Chapin-Smith said, “hopefully the Supreme Court would recognize the way this is going and that constitutionally it’s not right to treat us as second-class citizens.”
For the earliest ones in line, that was not the case – and the first state-recognized, same-sex marriage went off without hitch. Jonnie Terry, 50, and Elizabeth Patten, 52, both of Ann Arbor, were married at about 9:25 a.m.
Washtenaw County’s first gay marriage took place in the clerk’s office. They were surrounded by friends and strangers, and a hoard of media there to document history.
After the announcement was made, a jarring applause and camera flashes, accompanied by loud cheers, smiles, tears and hugs, filled the normally mundane, municipal building with an overwhelming feeling of pride and accomplishment.
“We got here at seven,” an emotional Pam Rai said, “We’re getting married today!”
Rai, 32, who is a court clerk herself and her partner Pamila Denhan, 31, of Ypsilanti, were excited to be a part of history and feel they should have the same rights as traditional couples are afforded.
“We love each other,” Rai said, “like anyone else, like my parents.”
Many shared in the joy that Rai and Denhan felt Saturday, even those not directly affected by the ban being struck down.
“My son and his wife refused to get married for years,” Soabra Briere, 64, said, “till California legalized gay marriage. It is a strong family value for us.”
Briere believes in the social change but also thinks that issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples would have a positive economic impact on the state.
“A lot of people left Michigan,” Briere said, “this ends those reasons why people left.
“Marriage should be between two adults, period.”
Additional reporting by Managing Editor Natalie Wright
Photos by Kelly Bracha | Photo Editor