At 10 a.m. this morning Albany County Clerk Jackie Gonzales walked into the corridor outside her office and presented an application for a marriage license to a lesbian couple, something that had been illegal until just moments before.
Gonzales was able to issue the application as a result of last week’s federal court ruling requiring Wyoming to fall in line with 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decisions striking down same-sex marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma.
Wyoming opted not to appeal the federal decision made on Friday by Judge Scott Skavdahl in Casper. On Monday afternoon officials sent a new gender-neutral marriage license form to county clerks around the state. At 10 a.m. Tuesday, clerks from Cheyenne to Jackson Hole received an email giving the go-ahead to issue licenses.
“I am proud of Wyoming, and proud they came through with the equality name,” said Linda Mahaffey of Laramie, who joined her fiancé Teresa Bingham in being the first same-sex couple to seek a license in Albany County. “We can just be equal like everyone else.”
Mahaffey thanked Anne Guzzo and Bonnie Robinson, a Laramie couple who were among the plaintiffs who received the favorable ruling in Guzzo v. Mead last Friday afternoon.
“We just never thought this day would happen,” said Mahaffey. “I’m glad that they (Guzzo and Robinson) stuck up and fought for us, honestly, because without them we probably we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Travis Gray and Dirk Andrews of Casper, together for nearly 11 years, were the first same-sex couple to obtain a marriage license in Natrona County on Tuesday morning. They walked in with a friend, and soon were surrounded by members of the media. They filled out the application form as cameras clicked at them from every angle.
Gray and Andrews shared big smiles and hugs with friends.
So what’s going to change for the couple now?
“As far as the day-to-day stuff, nothing at all. I mean our lives are going to continue exactly as they were,” Gray told WyoFile. “We already live together and pay our taxes and are part of the community and all of that.
“But as far as the big picture; just knowing that we’ve got legal rights and legal standing (to make) end-of-life decisions, and any of that kind of stuff that other people have and can take for granted, we’ll finally be able to have that in our back pockets.”
Gray and Andrews knew two years ago that they wanted to get married. But they’d have to go out of state because Wyoming statute defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The state didn’t seem to be moving toward equal rights for gays and lesbians anytime soon.
Then just a few weeks ago the legal foundations of Wyoming’s ban on same-sex marriage began to crumble.
“This happened all of the sudden and it was like, ‘All right, let’s do it,’” Gray said. “It’s just sort of a whirlwind. I don’t think any of us really expected it to go through this quickly. So the fact that it did — it’s just been kind of a very good thing, but sort of crazy and surreal.”
Another friend of the couple, Rev. Pamela Kandt, also of Casper, shed a few tears as she congratulated Gray and Andrews on their pending nuptials.
“This is a huge day of celebration, and I wasn’t about to miss it,” Kandt told WyoFile. “This is history; a same-gender couple being handed a marriage license across the counter at the Natrona County Clerk’s Office in Casper, Wyoming! I didn’t think I’d see this in my lifetime. This is a big, big day.”
Kandt said she was confident that Wyoming’s ban on same-sex marriage would fall, eventually. But that confidence was only in her head, not her heart. Last week’s hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl was a very nervous moment, said Kandt.
“I knew what the legal outcome had to be — there was no question about it,” she said. “But emotionally, I couldn’t invest in it. It would just be too crushing if for some reason things went sideways.”
For now, the question of same-sex marriage in Wyoming is resolved, and proponents plan to celebrate with several events across the Equality State.
“This is the big romantic part,” Kandt said.
But the work for equality for Wyoming’s gay and lesbian citizens isn’t over, she added. A person can still be fired from his or her job in Wyoming, simply for being gay. “So if you can be married but you can’t celebrate that marriage publicly, then we still have a lot of work to do.”
In Jackson Hole
Teton County Clerk Sherry Daigle prepared her staff with a 20-minute training session days before same-sex marriage became legal. “We had talked about what we were going to do,” she said Tuesday.
She told employees they would be performing an administrative function, she said. She recited the gist of her talk.
“We issue the liquor license but we don’t sell the liquor, we issue the vehicle titles but we don’t drive the cars, we’re just issuing the marriage license, we’re not performing the ceremony,” she said. “Just getting a license doesn’t marry you.”
The Wyoming Attorney General put clerks on notice, Daigle said.
“We got the AG’s letter yesterday,” she said. “I started calling the computer company,” about the state’s digital marriage license application form, the license itself and certificate of marriage.
They refer to groom and bride, have a maiden name for the bride only.
“Friday, Sweetwater County came up with a PDF (a digital document) that was forwarded through this morning,” apparently to all county clerks, Daigle said.
“Bride and groom has been taken off and there is a ‘maiden name’ on both sides,” she said.
Teton County is a wedding mecca, Daigle said. “We issue more licenses per-capita than any other (county) in the state. We’re a destination wedding spot,” with the Teton Mountain Range figuring in many ceremonies.
In summer months, clerks issue approximately 90 wedding licenses a month in a community with a permanent population of 21,294. Yet by 3:30 p.m., she had yet to see an application from a same-sex couple.
In the face of the landmark change, county residents were grappling with vocabulary. The term “normal marriage” was used at least once Tuesday morning in the county administration building to describe the marriage between a man and a woman.
Daigle herself was careful to not use that term as she explained the differences between old and new forms. For now, couples can choose between the two, she said.
State officials required county clerks to give couples the option of applying for the marriage license that uses the terms “bride” and “groom.” That direction came from Jim McBride, Deputy Assistant Registrar at the Wyoming Department of Health. An application form used in Albany County contained boxes asking couples to select “traditional marriage” or “non-traditional marriage.”
Staff in Albany County said it will take a few days to reprogram a database to allow for the proper terms in same-sex marriages.
Joining the lawsuit
Anne Guzzo and Bonnie Robinson, two of the plaintiffs in Guzzo v. Mead, were among the crowd that gathered in Laramie to witness Mahaffey and Bingham apply for their marriage license.
In February of this year Guzzo and Robinson sought a marriage license in Cheyenne at the Laramie County Courthouse. They were initially turned away, and later told they could come back to file an application, which the county clerk held until receiving further instructions on how to proceed. Following that, Guzzo and Robinson sued the state in Courage v. Wyoming, seeking review of a 1977 state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
“We put a lot of thought into what it would mean to join this, whether it was something we wanted to do or not,” Robinson said. “It was a big scary thing to decide to do be involved in, but we had to. We couldn’t not do it.”
Before Courage v. Wyoming was heard, the Supreme Court of the United States announced on Oct. 6 it would not hear appeals of cases in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that overturned bans on same-sex marriage in Utah and Oklahoma. That meant Wyoming would have to abide by the ruling, which could be expedited if someone would file a federal suit in Wyoming.
Since Courage v. Wyoming was filed in state court, that meant it wouldn’t not be in the immediate purview of the 10th Circuit Court Appeals unless it was appealed out of state court to the federal level. That led Guzzo and Robinson to sign onto the federal suit Guzzo v. Mead, which would be in the purview of the 10th Circuit.
Recognition and rights
Guzzo said the most important part about same-sex couples being able to marry is that they will receive all the same rights and benefits as married couples of opposite sexes.
“I would know that Bonnie is protected, and vice versa, and I think that thing alone will relieve worry,” Guzzo said.
One of the rights couples will now have is the ability to pass along property to a spouse in case of death, even if there isn’t a will.
“Right now, God forbid something bad would happen to one of us, but if it did, the other person wouldn’t necessarily get to live in the house,” Guzzo said. “It would be up to everyone outside of our relationship to decide who gets the house.”
The changes will also extend to medical situations, where one person in the relationship might not be permitted to visit the other because their relationship was not recognized.
“When we had a medical issue earlier where my doctor thought I might have cancer, it was up to everyone else in our life whether or not Bonnie could be there for me,” Guzzo said. “It was up to the doctor, the nurse, the hospital. It was up to my parents.”
Because they weren’t married, Robinson wasn’t covered by the Family Medical Leave act, and had to request special permission from her boss to get leave from work.
“At that time we suddenly realized all these protections that married people have that we didn’t have that would automatically be in place if we were married,” Robinson said. “We had all these extra worries on top of her health. We were dealing with all these other things, and it was a scary time.”
To those who would disagree
While the atmosphere in at the Albany County Courthouse was upbeat, even emotional, Robinson recognized not everyone will be happy that same-sex couples can now be married in Wyoming.
“There are a lot of things you don’t have to agree with, with other people,” Robinson said. “Everyone has the right to their own point of view, but it shouldn’t keep people from their legal rights and protections. I don’t expect everyone to be on board with this, but it shouldn’t prevent us from being married.”
For Robinson, same-sex marriage is a civil question, not a religious one. “This is about civil marriage and it is about the rights that are afforded to people who are allowed to get married,” she said. “I wish everybody would agree with us, but I am OK with it if other churches and religions don’t. Everybody has a right to their own beliefs.”
“We respect the other points of view, we really do,” Guzzo said. “We just want to have our legal protections, that’s all.”
A new chapter in Wyoming
For couples in Laramie, the issuing of the marriage license represented a turning of the page in the town where gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was murdered in October, 1998.
“It does speak volumes for Laramie and Wyoming in general,” said Bingham, who received a marriage license with Mahaffey this morning. “We will always remember Matthew Shepard, but we are moving past that mindset.”
Guzzo said the decision to recognize same-sex marriage makes her very proud to be in Wyoming, and helps to counter the state’s reputation of being unfriendly to gays and lesbians.
“We get a bad rap,” Guzzo said. “You look at what the media says about us: It’s Laramie Project, it’s Brokeback Mountain, it’s (the murder of) Matt Shepard. These aren’t the most positive representations, at least for happy, healthy, adjusted gay folk. So for me, it helps rectify that sort of depressing, dysphoric reputation we have.”
Guzzo, who grew up in Laramie and works as a professor and composer at the University of Wyoming, says she loves the independent spirit of the state, and the kindness of it’s people. She said her heart swells each time she returns home to the Laramie Valley after vacation.
“I know lots of people who live here and live happy and free and have no issues, and this just puts that lovely legal protection on it,” Guzzo said. “This is a place where equality matters.”
As for wedding plans, Mahaffey and Bingham’s marriage license is good for a year from today. They plan to get married in Laramie next July.
“It’s amazing how many people ask us if we are going to get married in Wyoming,” Mahaffey said. “Why would we go somewhere else if we can do it here?”
“I’m probably the most happy I have ever been. We love each other very much, and we are happy that we don’t have to hide our love anymore.”
— Dustin Bleizeffer and Angus M. Thuermer Jr. contributed to this story.
For more on this issue, read these WyoFile reports:
Wyoming same-sex marriage ban overturned, Mead will not appeal, October 17, 2014
Q&A: Al Simpson on same-sex marriage in the Equality State, October 17, 2014.
Judge will rule by 5 p.m. Monday on same-sex marriage in Wyoming, October 16, 2014.
Wyoming’s stalemate on same-sex marriage may break this week, October 14, 2014.
Wyoming same-sex marriage case rests on state constitution, April 8, 2014.
Bills aimed at LGBT equality fail, yet proponents see progress, urge civility, January 29, 2013.