VIDEO: For South Florida's Gay Couples, the Right to Marry Is Long Overdue

Video by Mitchel Worley

In 50 years -- when we're all commuting via hoverboard and drinking the carbonated beverages of our wildest dreams -- we'll likely wonder: How?

How could it take us so long to legalize gay marriage?

And -- in the same way we look upon the grainy black and white footage of the 1960s' segregation protests -- we'll likely have no good answer.

See also: Gay Marriage Begins in Broward County (Photos)

In Florida especially, the fight toward marriage equality was particularly tedious -- a dense legal tug-of-war that left many same-sex couples consistently confused and unsure of their futures. Almost each week, a new headline would pop up declaring same-sex marriage all but inevitable. The following week, another would call it dead on the steps of Pam Bondi's office. Even now that same-sex marriages are happening across the state, there still remains the possibility of an appeals court derailing the whole thing.

It's been, in a word, frustrating.

But there was no frustration in the Sunshine Cathedral this past Saturday, January 3, when three same-sex couples spent the morning in a premarital course led by Robert Griffin, the executive minister. The mood was light and hopeful inside the church. The couples sat in a semicircle on the front pew, discussing love and faith, telling stories of uncomfortable Thanksgivings spent together. Their combined relationships span more than half a century. They sound like marathon runners at the finish line, exhausted but happy, chatting among themselves about some of the more difficult parts of the route.

Karen Jean-Hathaway and Lori Douvris getting their marriage license at the Broward County Courthouse.
Karen Jean-Hathaway and Lori Douvris getting their marriage license at the Broward County Courthouse.
Photo by Monica McGivern

Once they completed the class, they would be able to go to the Broward County Courthouse at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, January 6, and legally wed.

All the couples -- ten in total -- who were in that four-hour premarital course at the Sunshine Cathedral were there because they wanted to be among the first same-sex couples in Florida to receive a marriage license. By taking the course, they got to skip the state-required three-day wait between the time they get their license and the time a ceremony is allowed.

For Robert Rhoads and Michael Zemblidge -- one of those three couples sitting in the front of the church -- marriage couldn't come soon enough.

The two will have been together for 30 years come August. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, they met in a bar after both ended long-term relationships. "You were funny. You were fun to be around, kind of crazy," Zemblidge remembers of his soon-to-be husband.

 

Rhoads and Zemblidge in their premarital course at Sunshine Cathedral.
Rhoads and Zemblidge in their premarital course at Sunshine Cathedral.

"I think I immediately picked up on Michael's sincerity and sweetness and overall sense of kindness. It was what I wanted in my life," Rhoads says.

Thirty years later, those first impressions remain fresh in their minds. During their premarital course, they wore near-identical outfits, and whenever the group discussion veered toward the sentimental and Robert's voice started to crack, Michael grabbed his hand without hesitation. They looked at each other with the attention and love these days one typically reserves for an iPhone.

Both Zemblidge and Rhoads are members of the Sunshine Cathedral. The church is located on SW Ninth Avenue, near downtown Fort Lauderdale. It's one of three South Florida locations and has been there since 2000. It is not a traditional church (if that wasn't made obvious enough by the oodles of gay couples occupying its seats).

"We open every service on Sunday with the tagline that the past is the past and the future has infinite possibilities," minister Griffin says. The church has an open policy, accepting all regardless of faith or sexual orientation.

The Sunshine Cathedral has been working to prepare South Florida gay couples for marriage since the first court rulings striking down the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

"My definition of marriage is anyone who enters into a relationship that is consensual and beneficial to each party that's involved," Griffin says. "I think marriage is a covenant between two people, and how they define that covenant is between those two people."

When Robert Rhoads and Michael Zemblidge wake up on January 7, their world probably won't look very different. They'll still do the same things they've been doing for the past 30 years.

They'll cook and watch movies and kiss and go on trips together. Same old stuff. So many of life's little things for Florida gay couples will remain static.

But marriage? No, that is not a little thing. That is a very big thing. Introducing your partner of 30 years to someone new as your husband, legally and officially, for the first time -- that is a big deal.

"I like the idea that with that piece of paper we can get up in the morning and say, in our country and in this state, we're no longer considered to be lesser people," Rhoads says. "I'm so grateful to the people who have paved the way for us, and I hope we've paved the way too. Maybe life will be a little easier for the people who are younger than us."

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