BY AJ TRAGER AND BTL STAFF
One year ago, four out of 83 counties in the state opened up on a Saturday to issue 323 same-sex marriage licenses. That day, March 22, 2014, will be a historic anniversary in Michigan’s history books, especially for the state’s LGBT community.
April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse are two metro Detroit nurses who challenged the ban after they were denied the right to co-adopt their (now) four children on the grounds that they weren’t married. Since the state barred them that civil right based on the 2004 voter approved Michigan Marriage Amendment, they decided, upon Judge Bernard Friedman’s request, to broaden their lawsuit filed against Gov. Snyder to include same-sex marriage.
Then in March of 2014, Friedman announced his ruling in DeBoer v Snyder overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. At 5:02 p.m. on March 21, 2014, Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown received her first phone call of many.
“I started crying, I was so happy! My phone didn’t stop ringing, and there was this wonderful madness happening,” Brown said. “It then came to the point of, ‘What are we going to do?’ It was 10:30 at night when we realized that we could open the office and that we could have the number of staff available in order to make it happen.”
County Clerks Barb Byrum of Ingham county, Lawrence Kestenbaum of Washtenaw County, Nancy Waters of Muskegon County and Brown opened on an off-schedule day to issue same-sex marriage licenses, some of them doing so without any compensation.
“I couldn’t sleep knowing that so many loving couples had to wait decades and I had to make them wait two more days,” Byrum said. “Friends were texting throughout the night and around three in the morning I sent a text to all of my staff to see if they wanted to come to work.”
By 6 a.m. Byrum’s entire staff, save one person who had to attend a funeral, said they would come into the office.
Kestenbaum was closely following national same-sex marriage cases, especially the DeBoer case, and was on the phone nonstop once Friedman announced his ruling.
“I immediately got calls from people asking if I was going to open the office. There were some practical issues with having the building open and so forth. I was working on some of those things, and then the question became not will we be open, but how can we not be open?” Kestenbaum recounted.
Some leaders in the state anticipated the events of March 22. Michigan requires that all marriage licenses come from the state. Back in October of 2013 when it looked like Friedman was going to make an early decision on the case, Kestenbaum, Brown and other county clerks consulted with the Bureau of Vital Statistics and had a committee work out a gender neutral form for counties to use. The PDF was sent out and was available so that no roadblocks for forms would be present when families were finally able to legally join.
Ingham County – 7:45 A.M.
“I was at work and Glenna (DeJong) called me to let me know that Friedman had ruled and that the ban was unconstitutional. I was elated. We were waiting to see what was going to happen in terms of Barb’s office,” Marsha Caspar said. “We were waiting all night and kept looking at tweets and Ingham county’s website. I wanted the first opportunity.”
Caspar and her wife Glenna DeJong have been together for decades and were the first couple to be legally married in Michigan. They arrived at the county clerk’s office early so that they could make it to a baking class later that morning. They hadn’t intended to be the first, but they jumped at the first opportunity they had.
“It was really exciting. After we got married, more and more couples kept coming in to get married,” Caspar said. “Families were coming in with their kids with parents and friends. We hung around for awhile and were witnesses at a couple of them. We stayed until noon. It was just an exciting, fun day.”
“As a county clerk I have the unique opportunity to issue licenses and perform marriages. It was amazing,” Byrum said.
Byrum and her team issued a total of 57 same-sex marriage licenses that day. Two unidentified women passed out carnations. Marriage ceremonies were performed on all three floors of the courthouse by members of faith, the mayor and Byrum, who ended up performing a mass ceremony.
Oakland County – 6 A.M.
Members of the LGBT community celebrated at many locations including Affirmations and /aut/Bar the evening of Friedman’s decision. Frank Colasonti Jr. and his husband James Ryder were sipping their cocktails with the Deboer family at /aut/Bar when Colasonti received a text that read “Open 9 a.m.” He knew it was Brown. The pair arrived at the Oakland County Clerk’s office at 6 a.m. the following morning after a quick power nap.
“We were at the nine day court hearing. Whenever we saw Lisa we told her that we were going to be the first couple in Oakland county that she was going to marry,” Colasonti said. “She’d laugh and say, ‘You and a hundred other couples.’ We got to know her.”
It wasn’t yet 9 a.m. when security escorted them to Brown’s office where they officially signed their documents and became the first same-sex married couple in Oakland county. They stayed around for awhile to watch other people wed but said it was also heartbreaking because so many couples couldn’t be shown on TV because of intolerance in their family or their work.
“We were both quite elated that, finally, the dream we had came true and we could marry our soul mates,” Colasonti said. “We were thrilled.”
Brown officiated over 80 marriages and her office issued 142 licenses, but only received 133 back.
“There were couples who have been together for 25 years and didn’t know when they were going to be able to get married,” Brown said. “And people weren’t guaranteed to have their family and friends around them for the big day. Being in a room filled with so much love was overpowering. It will always be one of the best days of my life. I’m honored to be a part of it.”
Washtenaw County – 9 A.M.
Kestenbaum estimated that his office could process 60 licenses over the course of four hours; at the end of the day, they issued 75. He has been a longtime supporter of marriage equality and was waiting for the moment where he could act.
“Coming into office with that constitutional amendment over my head, I certainly didn’t expect to play as big of a role as I did in bringing it about. I attended a speech by Mark Schauer last year. He was talking about the various issues, and he mentioned same-sex marriage and mentioned me. Obviously I had a role in it, but I’m merely a facilitator, not a main character. I am glad that I had a chance to help and encourage others to help,” Kestenbaum said.
Elizabeth Patten and Jonnie Terry were together for 28 years before they were legally married. After receiving their marriage license, they were officiated by Judge Judy Levy, the first openly gay judge to serve on Michigan’s Federal Bench.
“We didn’t know how much it would mean to us,” Patten said, “to finally have that peace. We feel honored and lucky to be married that day. It doesn’t go without notice that it’s great for us, but everybody behind us is still fighting. We are fortunate, but the fight still continues.”
Muskegon County – 10 A.M.
Between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., 48 same-sex couples legally married in Muskegon county, many at Harbor Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Jere Clausen and Bruce Walters, together for 14 years at the time, became the first couple to be married. “I believe things happen for a reason,” Clausen had said. “It’s not a forced thing.”
The church’s part-time pastor, Bill Freeman, performed many of the ceremonies. He noted, “I think God looks down on this and smiles.”
When county clerk Nancy Waters received notice of the stay, she unfortunately had to turn away a couple yet to be married. Nonetheless, Waters stood behind the marriages performed on March 22 as legal. “Our policy is that these are all legal, and we’re moving forward,” she said. “I’m going to go exactly by the law.”
According to mlive, Waters was quoted as feeling “good about the experience” at the time. “I know none of these people,” she said. “This is the type of thing that you would never think would be pulled off with such short notice.”
“When it comes to the treatment of any minority group, leaders in the community set the tone for that. We have a group that is unpopular and leaders who express bigoted views who give permission for violence and things like that,” Kestenbaum said. “Being an official, I take it very seriously that it is my way to promote tolerance, but it’s not my job to sit back and be quiet — it’s my job to promote tolerance in any way that I have.”
Michigan may be forced to recognize the legal union of 323 same-sex couples, but marriages performed out of state are not currently acknowledged by the state government. Movement in the courts has placed Michigan and three other states before the Supreme Court in April to argue for the constitutionality of same-sex marriage and why out of state marriages should be recognized. A decision is expected in June.
“The work isn’t done yet because there are a lot of other people besides the 300 who didn’t get married,” Ryder said. “In my mind it isn’t done for us. Friedman is an amazing judge and needs to be given more credit than he has received. He took it to a level that the legal teams didn’t anticipate. The ruling is so solid that its before the Supreme Court to be decided upon. He is a hero for us. He should be recognized as a hero in the Michigan LGBT movement.”