Everything seemed quiet outside the courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale just before midnight. The only thing that hinted that there might be something monumental going on inside was the presence of about a dozen cops scattered around the entrance.
In a huge waiting room on the third floor, about 300 people hugged and kissed and hugged some more. They gathered, with numbered tickets in hand, for their chance to get married to the people they love. Today, January 6, 2015, is the first day that same-sex couples can legally marry in Florida. And these folks -- mostly couples, a few with friends, some who'd been waiting decades, others just months -- were ready to tie the knot the old-fashioned way, with a group of strangers turned friends and some pretty terrible wedding music blasting from speakers.
We happened to literally walk into the first gay couples trotting down the stairs to get their marriage licenses on the second floor. Their numbers had been called, and they were on their way to pay their dues and form legal unions.
The actual first couple, Shannon Kicklighter and Chris Neill, is a soft-spoken pair who've been together for 14 years. Chris is going to take Shannon's last name. Their friend, the self-proclaimed Grace to their Will and Jack, Esther Mastrullo, was along for the ride. All smiles, she told us, "People deserve to be happy, because life's too short." They arrived at 9, and the doors were closed until 10. "When we came, we were shocked; they were number one!"
"I'm ecstatic!" Kicklighter exclaimed. But his story is also filled with sadness. His brother and his partner (Kevin Mark Powell and Stephen Duane Adams) had also planned to be married with the Neills, but they were murdered in their Wilton Manors home Christmas Eve of 2010. The murderer is awaiting trial. "My father had originally wanted to walk us down the aisle, but he passed away in 2006," Kicklighter explained. "My father and my brother are looking out for me."
The second couple to wed was Pembroke Pines' Joanne Stiger and Melissa Keller. "We were going to wait till 3, but we were like, let's do it now," Keller explained. They were first married on a cruise ship on 11/11/11, but now that it's legal, Keller said, "I can check off the box married now with happiness instead of 'I don't know.'"
Her partner, Stiger, said she felt "lightheaded" after the ceremony. She added that some of the reasons they wanted to get married were practical. "I went to the hospital; it's like, do you write married? Legally we weren't married. All the protection we get. I can put her on my insurance. People don't think about things like that."
While sitting at the window filling out paperwork, Keller said through tears, "I never thought we'd be sitting here." Their friend Judge Kathleen McHugh stopped by to preside over a proper wedding ceremony in the adjacent chapel. The media gathered in closely as she read a touching speech off her iPad. The two exchanged I dos, wedding rings, a kiss, and a long hug as the "Wedding March" played. We asked Keller what she'd like to say to the Florida attorney general who opposes gay marriage, Pam Bondi: "Love is the most important thing in the world."
Two other couples we spoke with were waiting to marry at the 3 a.m. mass ceremony. A detective with the Broward County Sheriff's Office, David Currie, and hairdresser Aaron Woodard have been together over a year. Woodard proposed on Christmas Day. Though they're planning a formal wedding ceremony, for them, being there was about the historic significance. "I think it's important to take part in this if we can," said Woodard thoughtfully.
Though most couples waiting to get hitched were not particularly young, they were all youthful in spirit and celebrating in one way or another.
One younger couple who were planning to get married in a group said they were also planning another larger ceremony with their families. Flight attendants and Atlanta natives Katie Keaton, 24, and Jess Lyn Kelly, 32, came to do the premarital counseling and realized it'd been waived, so they thought they'd just get married.
About 1:30 a.m., Chief Administrator to the Broward County Clerk of the Court Iris Siple announced that there'd be two group weddings. "We had so many folks turn out this evening, much more than we even thought might be out here; it's one of those good problems to have," she said. Over the next half-hour, she called out more numbers to excited couples and introduced the vice chair of the Broward Human Rights Board, who had us clap for Clerk Howard Forman and pointed out the rainbow flag in the room.
Also present for the ceremony was one of the plaintiffs in the case that brought Florida gay marriage. He cried as he thanked everyone there for being brave and remembered those who paved the way for this exciting occasion. He joked that if anyone wanted to renew their vows 12 hours later, Save Dade and the ACLU would be hosting an event tonight, 6 p.m. at the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens. He's also a pastor at Unity on the Bay in Miami and said there would be another ceremony on Saturday at 10 a.m. "I'm here to hug every single one of you," he said, and then went about doing so.
Siple introduced Forman as the man who would marry "you all" and mentioned it was his birthday. Everyone sang a hearty "Happy Birthday" in unison before he made history by marrying about 30 same-sex couples. They whispered their vows to each other with love and tears in their eyes and then kissed as the rest of us cheered and a champagne bottle or two popped in celebration.