Baltimore City

Same-sex couples celebrate first legal weddings

In the 17 years since Katie Cleary and Sharon Dongarra locked eyes in the kitchen of an Arby's restaurant, they have shared a first, tentative kiss, traded letters across continents, set up a home, exchanged vows before family and friends, signed a host of legal documents and nurtured a young daughter.

The couple has shared nearly every experience that can bond two people, except for one. Until today.

But just after midnight, the two women pledged themselves to each other yet again in their Towson home, becoming one of the first same-sex couples to be legally married in Maryland.

"After 17 years, we might as well do it the very moment we can," said Sharon Dongarra, 37, a chiropractor.

New Year's Day marks the culmination of years of work by gay and lesbian Marylanders and their allies to persuade state legislators, and later voters, to support full marriage rights for same-sex couples. The General Assembly approved same-sex marriage in 2012, only to have opponents petition it onto the ballot in the November election.

The Dongarras — Katie legally changed her last name to Sharon's a couple years ago — were exuberant when Maryland, along with Maine and Washington, became the first states in which voters approved extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.

The next day, Sharon Dongarra recalled, she got teary-eyed watching Katie help their daughter, Lucy, into the car. "I remember thinking, 'She will not remember a time when her moms were considered second-class citizens in Maryland,' " she said.

The couple was one of dozens planning a New Year's Day wedding ceremony. Partners of 29 years exchanged vows on the roof of their Harborview home as fireworks rocketed over the Inner Harbor. The doors of Baltimore's City Hall opened just after midnight to host the weddings of seven couples. And an Eastern Shore inn was preparing to host 50 weddings throughout the day — including one for the inn's owners.

John Kyle and Pete Satten planned to mark their 23rd anniversary as a couple with an intimate wedding at a Brewers Hill restaurant. The pair had posted a sign in support of Question 6 — the ballot question that authorized same-sex marriage — in front of their stone house in Bolton Hill months ago and planned to affix a "Just Married" sticker on it after the ceremony.

Even as couples were arranging flowers and cupcakes for their ceremonies, others were planning protests. The ultra-conservative Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing high-profile funerals with signs saying "God hates" gay people, has received permits to rally in front of courthouses in Towson and Annapolis on Wednesday, police said.

Meanwhile, parishioners of St. Anne's, the 300-year-old Episcopal church across from the Annapolis courthouse, were planning a counter-protest the same day to "bear witness to the good news of God's unconditional love."

"We will not engage them. But we will speak our message of love more loudly," Joe Pagano, the associate rector of St. Anne's, wrote to parishioners. "Come and join us and let us show the world that the love of Jesus is more powerful than hate."

For those who came of age during earlier eras, the fact that same-sex marriage could be legal in Maryland — and nine other states — seems nearly too good to be true.

When Michael Williams, 53, and Clifton Scott, 61, met on Feb. 4, 1984, the two men never dreamed that they would one day marry — or that they would be together 29 years later. Williams and Scott were at a bar in Indianapolis when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" — the year's top song — began to play.

Scott asked Williams to dance, and the two men instantly felt a powerful bond.

"I knew as soon as I met him," said Scott, a human resources director. "Did we even date? We were very committed from the beginning."

Williams, a neurologist, said the couple's exuberance was tempered by his family's reluctance to accept that he was gay.

"My parents came down to Indianapolis the summer after we met," he said. "It was very hard for them. My mother cried. My dad got mad and stayed mad for a couple years."

But in time, Williams' parents grew to embrace Scott. The couple attended holiday gatherings and family vacations together. Their nieces and nephews, born after the men fell in love, think of them as inseparable.

Many of those relatives were among the 60-some guests gathered on the roof of the couple's Harborview home at midnight for the wedding ceremony. Each man had chosen a brother to serve as his best man as vows were exchanged.

They feasted on a catered meal — crab cakes, smoked salmon, marinated beef tenderloin, two kinds of cake — and celebrated as fireworks exploded over the harbor.

"It was wonderful," Williams said.

"There were vows, and in fact, as we were saying them, one of my nieces was holding an iPad with a countdown clock so that the wedding could be officially ended in 2013," he said. "We had to wait for about 30 seconds because we were a little fast, and then we counted down 10, 9, 8 and so forth, and then Rev. [Stephen] Mann pronounced us married and everyone cheered and the fireworks went off."

The marriage, Williams says, is "the final bow on the package" of the couple's deep commitment.

"We know that we're unusual in that we've been together for 29 years and we've never had the chance to stand up in front of our friends and family and say our vows," he said. "We did want to stand up and say, 'We do.'"

For Katie and Sharon Dongarra, the official state marriage certificate brings a similar sense of satisfaction.

The two met when they were teenagers working at an Arby's restaurant in their hometown of Seaford, Del. Sharon had turned away from the meat slicer when she spotted Katie refilling the coffee pot. A spark passed between them.

The pair were friends for a long time before they shared a kiss on Aug. 12, 1995, the date they celebrate as their anniversary. But soon they were parting ways — Katie was heading off to Washington College and Sharon accepted a job with the Red Cross that took her to Turkey, Korea and Kuwait.

They poured out their feelings in lengthy letters, Katie detailing classes while Sharon described aiding the residents of the countries in which she was working.

Sharon came home to surprise Katie for her 21st birthday. She held Katie close as she prepared to leave, feeling, she recalls, "like I was going to die."

"It was really at that moment I knew I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life," Sharon said.

The women moved in together during Katie's last year of college, then made a home together in Baltimore. They moved to Georgia together so Sharon could attend chiropractic school. On the 11th anniversary of their first kiss, they exchanged vows at a commitment ceremony at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

The Dongarras paid an attorney $6,000 to prepare documents granting them many of the rights that couples receive when they pay a fraction of that for a marriage certificate. After Katie gave birth to Lucy, another lawyer helped the family through the adoption process so Sharon could have full rights as a parent.

But still, something was lacking. The Dongarras wanted that piece of paper that proved they were a committed couple, equal to any other.

They joined the campaign for Question 6, knocking on doors, volunteering at a phone bank, chatting with voters outside the polls on Election Day. Asking strangers to vote for their rights felt unnatural, said Katie, who works for a mortgage company.

When same-sex marriage passed, the couple decided to make their marriage official as soon as possible. They wanted Sharon's mother, who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in August and whom they describe as a "tireless proponent for gay rights," to be able to celebrate with them.

And so, at midnight, the women stood in front of an antique clock in their home to promise their lives to each other — in the eyes of the state.

As they made plans in the days leading up to the wedding, the Dongarras weren't sure if they would wake Lucy for the ceremony or let her sleep through the excitement. But they agreed that she was most important reason for them to celebrate a wedding.

"We've done OK as outlaws," said Sharon Dongarra. "But Lucy needs to know her moms' relationship is as legitimate as anyone else's."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.