Love was in the air on Jan. 6 as throngs of local residents – including 44 same-sex couples – convened in and around City Hall downtown. It had, after all, been a bumpy road to this point of marriage equality – even after U.S. Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in late December that he would lift the stay on gay marriage, which was enacted in one of the panoply of cases challenging the constitutionality of Florida's gay-marriage ban, voted into law in 2008 by 62 percent of the state's residents. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi had doggedly challenged the notion of opening the floodgates of fairness up to the bitter end. On Jan. 6, a day after couples were married in Miami-Dade County when a separate stay was lifted by Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel, Bondi's poorly chosen words were a source of confusion.
"Um, my solicitor general is looking at everything," she told the News Service of Florida. "We just want uniformity. ... Best wishes to all the couples who are married."
She then went on to reference the 2008 ban and its apparent populist backing before shushing reporters and saying that she had lost her mother in the assembled media crowd.
It wouldn't matter. Undaunted, Mayor Buddy Dyer, flanked by City Commissioners Regina Hill and Patty Sheehan, along with Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie, Clerk of Courts Tiffany Moore Russell and other county officials (conservative City Commissioners Jim Gray and Tony Ortiz refused to even add their names to the event invitation; County Mayor Teresa Jacobs didn't show, nor did any of her board), orchestrated a mass traditional wedding ceremony at Orlando City Hall without a hitch.
"Because we have and continue to embrace diversity, Orlando is at the forefront for attracting businesses, talent and people from across the globe," Dyer later said in a statement. "I am proud that Orlando is a welcoming, multicultural community that people from across the country and globe want to call home."
But there were some tense moments leading up to the celebration. Given the uncertainty of the ruling right up through New Year's Day – when Hinkle finally clarified that all counties fell under his judgment, not just the one county where the case he ruled on originated – most couples interested in joining in matrimony were crossing their ring fingers that it would actually happen. Weddings, after all, are not easy to plan.
"They were concerned about getting the licenses on time," says attorney Mary Meeks, who assisted on several of the state's gay marriage cases. "They cranked them out really quickly."
But the weddings themselves are only part of the battle, Meeks says. She's already heard of hospitals saying that they won't issue birth certificates to gay couples, Social Security offices that aren't complying with requests for name changes, as well as widely reported cases of counties ceasing all courthouse weddings to avoid wading into equality territory.
"There's plenty we have to work on," she says.
Metropolitan Business Association board member Andrea Hays, who assembled the couples for the City Hall event, echoes the concerns that burdened couples wanting to get hitched.
"Only up until last week did we really know for sure that it was happening. So many of [the couples] wanted to get married, but they had hesitation," she says, adding that a last-ditch (failed) lawsuit by Christian conservatives against the city and Circuit Judge Bob LeBlanc – who performed a ceremony for a reported 50 couples on the evening of Jan. 6 at the Center – confused the matter. Mayor Dyer, she says, didn't ever flinch. And, clearly, the struggle to make marriage happen only served to sweeten the deal.
"I remember the sun hitting the left side of my face and feeling this warmth," Hays says. "I felt like this ray of light was just beaming on us. This was meant to be."
Still, not everyone believed that it was foolproof (or Bondi-proof), says LeBlanc.
"Several of the weddings were for people, even lawyers, who were already married in another state," he says, "but they didn't trust what would happen in Florida."
At the City Hall ceremony, protests were minor, if a little noisy. When one protester heckled from the back that "Jesus is coming!" local playwright and gadabout Michael Wanzie screamed back, "Jesus is here!"
In the afterglow of the celebration, there are still nuanced arguments to be hammered out in terms of what this breakthrough means for the LGBT civil rights movement, says Zebra Coalition director Dexter Foxworth, who works predominantly with at-risk youth who have been cast aside by their families.
"I still think that marriage equality is really important to kids. I think it really sends a strong message to these kids in terms of living happily ever after," he says. "But it's not really on the radar with most LGBT youth, whose main concerns are bullies, getting thrown out of the house and transgender issues, among other things. My fear is that now everyone is going to feel that this is it, that we're done."
For now, though, enjoy these images of a milestone victory for LGBT citizens and for society in general: Thirty-six states and counting now recognize marriage between people of the same sex. There may be work to do, but so much history has already been made. Some celebration is obviously in order.
"It was simply magical to be part of the festivities," Commissioner Sheehan says. "I had always hoped gay marriage would happen in my lifetime. And, logically, I knew, with so many states granting marriage, that it would be a matter of time for Florida. Nothing could prepare me for the joy I felt as I stood behind [her aide] Bill Stevens and [his husband] Robert Brings as they were given the first Orange County license. And it felt so great, as someone who has worked for equality for so many years, to witness the signatures on the first certificates. Wow!"