A Monroe County judge yesterday said a Key West couple can't marry despite his ruling that Florida's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. Chief Judge Luis Garcia said in an appeal by the State of Florida, "The automatic stay, currently in place, shall remain in place until completion of appellate proceedings or until further order of this Court."
But this past Thursday afternoon, Key West locals Aaron Huntsman and William "Lee" Jones heard the news they had been waiting 11 long years to hear: that they could be married in the place they call home.
Earlier this year, the couple sued Florida after Monroe County Clerk of Court Amy Heavilin refused to issue them marriage licenses because of the state's ban on same-sex marriage. But then Garcia struck down the ban, stating that the justice system has a duty to protect the constitutional rights of the "unpopular" and the "powerless" from government interference.
Upon hearing the ruling they had hoped to receive, the couple began to weep together in joy, trembling in the excitement that they and other same-sex couples across Florida could come to the Keys to be married. "I am ecstatic to hear the ruling; I am so relieved and overjoyed... I can't believe it came through. I am so happy because I can finally marry the man I have been in love with for 11 years now, and for it to be legally recognized by the state," said Jones, choking up with tears. "Now other couples throughout the state can get married to the ones they love and be recognized for it too."
Beyond the social recognition that being married would give them, Huntsman and Jones are in this fight for marriage equality because they want to help other Floridians in the same situation. "We already feel we are married in God's eyes, but it's very important for us to change this law for all the people in the state of Florida who are being affected by [the marriage ban]; it's of great importance to us," Huntsman said.
Since the LGBT community has faced a lot of discrimination throughout the state and the world at large, the couple also hopes to instill a sense of pride in the next generation of LGBT youth, who are not only at risk of being victims of hate crimes but are also at an increased risk of self-hate offenses -- such as self-mutilation and even taking their own lives.
"The suicide rate is so high in the gay community. Not everyone is proud to be who they are; we've lost so many..." Huntsman said, trailing off and pausing for a moment. "If Lee and I can make a difference in just one person's life, to show them that there are people out there fighting for the right to be recognized, then whether we win or lose at the end, it will all be worth it."
Throughout their journey for equality has stood the couple's longtime friend Michael Hudson, who has witnessed the couple being discriminated against throughout the years and has experienced his own share of hate on account of his sexuality.
"Depending on what the situation called for, I've threatened violence... Other times, I've met it with diplomacy. I've never really felt degraded by the hatred that has been spewed. Now that I'm older and wiser, I answer those situations with a knowing smile and say to them 'Love is love' -- that's all that matters in this world."
Hudson feels incredibly proud of his friends for their lawsuit win in Monroe County. "Their love for each other is very genuine; they have no pretense!" he said. "They also have been married in their own hearts to each other for 11 years and one month! Aaron and William 'Lee' are true soulmates!"
In reflecting on how their relationship began, Huntsman smiled. "We hit it right off when we met at Key West Pride in '03, it was BAM! We spent the whole week together, and in our second week together, we moved to Key West. I gave up my career, my apartment in Fort Lauderdale -- I gave it all up to be with up to be with him. It was the best decision I have ever made."
After a year together, Huntsman and Jones took off to Las Vegas, where they committed themselves to each other (since they couldn't get married to each other) in a ceremony witnessed by their family and friends. After last Thursday's ruling, they are filled with hope that after all these years they may soon finally be allowed to marry in the state they call home.
"We're just average guys," said Huntsman. "We share a banking account, insurance, registration. It's time for Florida to finally recognize us as being with each other."
Anthony Verdugo, director of the Christian Family Coalition, said the ruling was the result of judicial corruption.
"No matter what your religious beliefs are, when it comes to equal rights, there should be a separation of church and state," said Huntsman. "I was raised religious, Lee as well, and I still pray, and I don't believe I'm any better than anybody else, but I just feel like when it comes to love, it doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, or transgender. If you love someone, then that's awesome and very rare to find that in this life. You have to go for it."
Though many in the LGBT community feel frustrated with Pam Bondi's appeal to their case, Huntsman is surprisingly cordial. "She's just doing her job of representing the voters; I have no resentment toward the state -- they're doing what they're supposed to do," Huntsman said.
If both the appeals court and the Florida State Supreme Court (and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court) agree with Judge Garcia's decision, then marriage equality could soon be brought to Florida, which in turn could influence other states still on the fence to allow same-sex marriage. -- Jonathan Kendall