Wedding bells to ring for Maryland's same-sex couples

Amid the cheers of President Barack Obama's victory rally in Chicago, Keesha Patterson reached into her bag for a tiny box, dropped to one knee, turned to her girlfriend of 11 years and told her, in front of everyone, how much she loved her and wanted to marry her.

Word that Maryland's Question 6 had passed had just flashed on the screen, and Patterson, who grew up in Baltimore's McCulloh Homes and now lives in Prince George's County, knew the moment was right.

"I just took a deep breath, and I looked at her and I said, 'I'm going to do it,'" Patterson said.

Patterson, a community college instructor, and her fiancee, Rowan Ha, a network engineer, haven't yet had a chance to dream through the details of their wedding. Just that it will be next year and, thanks to the passage of a ballot measure that makes same-sex unions legal in Maryland, that it will take place in their home state.

If Tuesday was a day of white-knuckled worry for gay and lesbian Marylanders and their friends and relatives as they waited to see whether the voters would approve same-sex marriage, Wednesday was a day to celebrate — and to plan.

"It's real now," said Andy Wolt, 26, a NASA employee. "I've been ecstatic all day. I feel like I just got engaged again."

On the first of the year, Maryland will extend the benefits of marriage to the state's estimated 12,500 same-sex couples. Voters in Maine approved a similar law Tuesday, joining the District of Columbia and six other states that already offer full marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Making arrangements

Wolt and his fiance, Leslie Somerville, 30, have been thinking about a wedding since Somerville proposed to Wolt in the couple's Mount Vernon apartment last December.

Somerville, an author, was laid up with a winter cold, when Wolt asked him if there was anything he could do to make him feel better. Somerville handed him a small box and said, "It would totally make me feel better if you married me."

Since then, the couple has been looking at potential wedding sites in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriage has been legal for more than two years.

"If it wasn't going to pass in Maryland, we would have moved to D.C.," Wolt said. "We want to get married where we live, and we didn't want to get married in a place that didn't treat us equally."

Now the couple is prepared to put a deposit on their dream venue — the mansion at Druid Hill Park. But, if they are unable to secure the date of their choice, they have no shortage of options in the Baltimore area.

Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism wing, lost no time in posting a guide to venues and hotels eager to help gay and lesbian couples plan their weddings. A private company has set up a directory of florists, caterers and officiants who want to work on same same-sex ceremonies, an industry with potential — New York City, for instance, reported $259 million in economic impact from its first year of gay nuptials.

Some couples from neighboring states are already making plans to wed in Maryland. Stephen Smith, 34, and his partner of 15 years, Matt Conner, 42, live in Arlington, Va., but hope to marry in Maryland in June.

The couple, both actors, met at an audition for a musical while in college.

"That moment when you tingle all over and you feel, 'I'm supposed to be with this person'" said Smith, describing the meeting. "It's real."

Smith and Conner had been planning to marry in Washington. But they would rather celebrate in the country, with their pug, Buddha, in attendance, so they are now hoping to have the ceremony at a friend's home in the Maryland countryside. Friends contacted them after the votes were totaled, offering to host the wedding celebration.

'A profound feeling'

Dan Furmansky, a same-sex marriage activist who runs a side business officiating weddings, says that he has already heard from several couples who got engaged since the referendum passed.

Furmansky, 38, the former director of Equality Maryland, the group that has lobbied for years for same-sex marriage, has presided over several weddings in the District of Columbia, Massachusetts and the other few states that allow gays and lesbians to marry.

The weddings of same-sex couples are burnished with a certain intensity, Furmansky says, because each represents a personal and legal triumph.

"Because people have waited for so long, there are a lot of people who have been together 10, 20, 30 years," he said. "Many of them have their children, or their adult children, with them for the wedding. It's such a profound feeling because they've already been married for so many years in their hearts."

Furmansky's own wedding, this past Labor Day weekend, was in Massachusetts, far from his Silver Spring home.

"We were engaged for a year and a half," he said. "We weren't going to wait around to see what happened in Maryland because we were ready to be married then."

For Steve Lemmerman and his fiance, Stuart Parlier, the timing of the vote could not be better. The couple plans to throw an engagement party in a week and a half not far from their downtown apartment.

Parlier proposed to Lemmerman last summer on the dance floor of Grand Central, a Mount Vernon gay nightclub where Lemmerman works as a DJ. It was Lemmerman's 23rd birthday, and his mother, aunt and close friends had been secretly invited to watch the proposal.

But after the engagement, Parlier, 29, an academic coordinator at Johns Hopkins University, and Lemmerman shied away from planning the wedding before the vote.

"We were pretty dead set on holding off until we knew what the plan was for Maryland," said Lemmerman.

The men, who quickly fell in love after meeting three years ago, were certain that they wanted to be married, not to have a civil union.

"A civil union sounds like we live together and clean the house together," said Lemmerman. "I want to be treated equally, and 'separate but equal' has never worked."

Furmansky, the wedding officiant, said gay and lesbian couples planning weddings choose the traditions that feel meaningful to them and shed those that feel sexist or outdated.

Wolt, the NASA worker, said that he and his fiance are figuring out how to have a "big traditional wedding" that feels true to them.

"Just because we're both men doesn't mean we can't have a traditional wedding," he said.

Lemmerman, the DJ, and his fiance are engrossed in similar decisions.

"We're both going to wear tuxedos. No tossing a garter belt," he said. "I don't know about a bouquet. I'm sure he'd love to throw a bouquet, though."

The couple wears matching engagement rings, simple bands engraved with a line from a Radiohead song: "You are my center when I spin." And they have no shortage of help and support from their parents as they plan their ceremony,

"My mother has taken over so much of the engagement party, I'm a little nervous about the wedding," Lemmerman said with a laugh.

Navigating the politics

Like many gay and lesbian couples, Robbie Heacock, 32, and Stephen Durst, 26, stayed up late Tuesday night to watch the state's election results. They cried when they realized they would be able to get legally married.

When the pair sent "Save the date" cards for their June wedding, they included a card reminding guests to vote for Question 6. Heacock said it resulted in "the big eyeroll" from some folks.

"This is the year politics had to be involved in our wedding," said Heacock, an administrative coordinator at the Johns Hopkins University.

Older couples who met when society was less tolerant of same-sex relationships are used to navigating the tricky evolving politics. Pat Montley and Sally Wall of Lutherville have been waiting a long time for their home state to grant same-sex marriages — 33 years.

Montley, 69, a retired theater professor and playwright, and Wall, 66, a professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University, marked their 25th anniversary in 2004 by getting married in Canada.

"Of course, when we came home, it didn't make a difference," said Montley. "It didn't make a difference in our lives, in our rights, or how people viewed us."

The couple, who met when they were on the residential life staff at Goucher College, recalled the anxieties of the early days of their relationship.

"When we were young, we lived in fear that we would be reported on by the neighbors. We lived in fear that our families would disapprove of us, which they did," said Montley. "We lived with the realization every day that our relationship was not viewed as being as worthy as the relationship between a committed and heterosexual couple."

Now, Montley said, the neighbors are supportive and friendly and most family members have come to embrace the couple. Montley and Wall aren't sure if they will have a wedding in Maryland or throw a party to celebrate their commitment.

But, said Montley, there is one thing of which they are sure.

"Now we can say we're married and it means something," she said. "We don't feel like second-class citizens any more."

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