On the day Washington finally allowed them to apply for a marriage license, Margaret Witt and Laurie Johnson woke before dawn to be first in line.
They arrived at the Spokane County Courthouse in the dark on December 6, 2012, standing on the front steps. Other same-sex couples joined them over the next few hours. TV crews and photographers crowded around the crowd as everyone waited for the doors to open.
As they swung forward, Witt and Johnson walked down the white-tiled hallway, walked into the chartered accountant’s office, and began filling out forms at the marriage license counter. They wrote down birthdays, scribbled signatures, and paid the $55 fee while the crowd watched in silence.
At this point, Witt, 48, and Johnson, 54, had been a couple for nine years.
They had been together when Witt, a former Air Force major and flight nurse, successfully challenged the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned gays and lesbians from open duty.
Leading up to December 6, they were outspoken supporters of Referendum 74, the nationwide ballot measure that legalized same-sex marriage. Nearly 54% of Washington voters supported the measure during the 2012 general election, although 56% of Spokane County voters opposed it.
Witt and Johnson received their marriage license five seconds before 8:29 a.m. Fred Perez, a recording specialist in the CPA’s office, handed them the piece of paper, and the silence gave way to cheers.
“There was just this roar in those halls,” said Victor Rapez-Betty, who, along with his husband Brandon, was one of 23 same-sex couples to receive a marriage license that day. “Everyone celebrated”
Spokane County CPA Vicky Dalton said Dec. 6 was the best day she’s had in her 24 years as the bureau’s chief.
“It’s the one day I will always remember most clearly and best,” she said. “It was a day of joy and relief for so many people.”
Joy, hugs and tears dominated the day, but many who received their marriage license 10 years ago struggled to explain the complex mix of emotions they felt.
“I’m not sure I have the words for it,” said Michelle Booth, who has been with her wife Gretchen Emrich since 1979. “It was one of the best days of my life.”
Nina Stocker was pregnant with her second son when she and wife Chari Parker picked up their marriage license. Stocker, who helped phone banking legalize same-sex marriage, said she knew she was taking part in a historic event.
“I remember actually feeling like a tangible step forward, which is really weird when you’re trying to pin it down. I don’t know how to explain this feeling,” she said. “That moment when you feel seen and understood and invited to something that you weren’t previously a part of and weren’t allowed to be a part of.”
Some people who received their marriage certificates on December 6 never dared hope that they could get married.
“For me to actually realize that I could be married to the one I loved was never a reality, so I pushed that back in my mind,” Witt said. “I had to find other ways to be safe in a relationship.”
Witt, who was fired from the Air Force after her superiors learned she was a lesbian, said she always felt unfair that same-sex couples couldn’t marry.
“I could walk in with a guy I met the day before and get a marriage license,” she said. “It just seems so unfair and wrong.”
Getting a marriage license wasn’t just an emotional decision for same-sex couples Dec. 6. The piece of paper also brought decisive legal advantages.
For years, same-sex couples have missed out on the hundreds of perks afforded to opposite-sex married couples, such as: B. Filing joint tax returns and title deeds for a home in multiple names.
“It took care of a whole lot of things,” Emrich said. “It took care of estate planning, it took care of having medical information on your spouse. … It has opened up a whole range of avenues that most people take for granted.”
Con Mealey, who had been with husband Greg Richards for more than 30 years on December 6, 2012, agreed.
“Suddenly everything becomes easier,” Mealey said. “You’re just living a flimsy life, but now everything’s covered, everything’s legal.”
Brandon Rapez-Betty said the marriage license doesn’t mean much to him and his husband emotionally. They had married a few months ago, although the government didn’t recognize it.
“It didn’t really do anything to increase our love or commitment to each other because that had already happened,” he said. “It gave us peace of mind that we were protected, just like everyone else in Washington state.”
The legal landscape surrounding same-sex marriage has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Other states allowed it, and in 2015 the US Supreme Court ruled that the right to same-sex marriage was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution and legalized it in all 50 states.
Last week, the US Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act to codify the right to same-sex marriage. The US House of Representatives could pass the law in the coming days.
Couples who received their marriage licenses at the Spokane County Courthouse a decade ago said they believe America has become more tolerant of same-sex relationships, but added caveats.
Mealey, who lives in Post Falls with Richards, pointed out that Republican Idaho Senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo voted against the Marriage Respect Act. Victor Rapez-Betty said some people are still taken aback when he tells them he has a husband.
Still, many of these attitudes are trending in the right direction as more and more people have openly gay friends and family members.
“You don’t have to explain yourself like you used to,” Booth said.
Richards said he’s seen generational change over the decades. He explained that his uncle was effectively ostracized by the family because he was gay.
“We were always told, ‘Hey, guess your uncle – we don’t talk about it. Don’t be alone with him,'” Richards said. “How terrible that he had to live this life.”
It was easier for Richards, but he still faced challenges. He and Mealey felt they couldn’t have children because they feared their children would be bullied at school. Even on the day he received his marriage license, Richards was concerned that protesters inside the courthouse would shout homophobic slurs at him — none showed up — or that one of his Spokane Community College students would see him.
America has slowly made progress, Richards said.
“Today I have a nephew and he and his husband are married. They want children,” he said. “What a beautiful change in life. That’s three generations.”
Witt, who hopes to bring Johnson somewhere warm on vacation as an anniversary gift, said their marriage is “solid as a rock” after 10 years.
“You don’t know what you don’t have when you’re forced to give it up,” she said. “That’s what it’s like to be whole and have the same skills as other families.”