As the New Year rolled in, four Havre de Grace men became some of the first same-sex couples to be legally married in Harford County.
Havre de Grace City Councilman Joe Smith married Don Starr, his partner for a quarter century, at the Concord Point Lighthouse just after the clock struck midnight Jan. 1.
A day later, on Jan. 2, Casey Anno and David Wilhelm were the first gay couple to be married in the Clerk of the Court's Ceremonial Room. It was a day they thought would never come, as well as a reminder that progress still needs to be made.
Eight gay or lesbian couples had applied by the end of December to be married in Harford County in anticipation of a state law allowing such unions taking effect Jan. 1. As of Wednesday, Clerk of the Circuit Court Jim Reilly said no more same-sex weddings were scheduled in the Ceremonial Room and no more same-sex couples had applied for marriage licenses.
Smith and Starr had a private ceremony with a family friend proclaiming them married right as the clock struck midnight and the city's fireworks lit up the sky nearby.
Their event was followed by champagne and cake at the design studio they run together downtown.
Although Smith said he felt "surprisingly, not a whole lot different," he said the event was "perfect," with nice weather and well-timed to the fireworks.
"I think that we feel about the same as we did before," he said. "In fact, it's kind of a relief because it's now done."
Smith also said he and Starr wanted to keep their ceremony private partly to avoid any potential backlash.
"The fact is that you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, you keep waiting for something, and you hope it doesn't, you hope it continues to be normalized," he said.
Nevertheless, Smith, who helped found the Stonewall Democrats of Maryland gay rights organization, said the legalization was a welcome pay-off for his years spent fighting for equality.
"Having been in this sort of gay rights movement for some time now, since I was in college and going to marches and things, being pretty active, having this all come to fruition is pretty gratifying to me," he said.
'It feels wonderful'
Anno, 44, and Wilhelm, 53, wore matching, bright-blue shirts to their small, private ceremony at 1 p.m. Wednesday, a milestone in their 11-year relationship.
"We're the first? My God!" Wilhelm asked Circuit Court employee Jennifer Karras after she proclaimed them spouses. Both he and Anno gave a big hug to the equally-excited Karras, the only witness to the nuptials besides a reporter and photographer.
"It feels wonderful," Anno said, smiling.
Wilhelm said he never thought he would see "legal gay marriage in my lifetime," noting he has been openly gay since the 1970s.
"I still find it hard to believe that we really legally can be married," he said right after the ceremony.
Anno also said: "It's nice to have the government recognize what Dave and I have felt for the last 11-1/2 years, and to have the same rights as everybody else."
Both men moved from the West Coast in 2005 – Wilhelm from Washington, Anno from Montana – and said they were still wary about being visible as a gay couple in Harford County.
"Harford County is nice, but it's on the border with Cecil," Wilhelm noted, pointing out a Confederate flag on a property he saw along I-95 toward Delaware and a man he saw in North East with a Nazi tattoo.
"It reminds you of the mindset around some of that," he said. "It's still scary to be openly gay."
Wilhelm said he told the women in the Circuit Court office lobby that "there is a lot of craziness out there."
Anno also pointed out the passage of the law legalizing gay marriage, by way of referendum, was not ideal.
"I am really glad it passed, but you know, civil rights really shouldn't be put to a popular vote," he said, adding interracial marriage would still be illegal if it had been put to a popular vote.
"I am happy that it passed and I think that it's going to start changing the nation as people realize that it's a civil marriage, it's not a religious issue," he said.
Harford voters did not support Question 6 on the ballot this past November, though the measure passed in the state at large.
Wilhelm and Anno said they stayed up on election night to hang on every second of the election results on Question 6.
"As we were watching it, it was going from 48 [percent] to 52, but every once in a while, it was getting 49," Anno recalled.
As a federal employee, Wilhelm said he still could not get Anno on his health benefits, for example. He was hopeful that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which declares marriage to be between a man and a woman, will be struck down in the near future.
"Like many gay people, I will be waiting with bated breath," he said.
Anno and Wilhelm had "absolutely" considered themselves married before the law passed and said they had talked about going to New York when same-sex marriage was approved there.
But, Wilhelm said, "when we heard that it was coming to a vote here, we said, 'Let's wait.'"
Despite their concern about some of their neighbors, the men said they have received plenty of support on their marriage and relationship.
"Everybody we talked to has been really supportive about it," Anno said.
Karras, the Circuit Court employee, said she was pleased as she asked the men to hold hands and promise to be faithful and loyal to their spouses, although she slipped once by saying "wife."
"I am very excited, very happy for them," Karras said.