“Couple 11” stood before a Fulton County judge Friday with a brace of parents, family and friends representing nearly 100 years of marriage.
Now, just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had the constitutional right to be married, Laura Rivera and Catherine Simonsen were about to do their part to extend those collective years of matrimony past the century mark.
Catherine went first, gliding a size 4 ½ band onto Laura’s ring finger. Laura looked down, wide-eyed. It was slightly loose, owing to the fact that another couple had loaned them their own wedding bands just minutes before the ceremony.
Though Catherine and Laura had talked about marriage in the 14 months since they first met, the decision to go through with it on Friday was a spontaneous one. In the minutes after the ruling rang out, they realized they no longer had to consider going to another state where gay marriage had been legal for years, only to return to a home state where their union would go unrecognized. Instead, they could seize this historic moment and be able to say at anniversaries that they had claimed a piece of history.
That left no time to shop for rings. Nor did it leave time to pick out special outfits or get bouquets. This was going to be a come-as-you are affair, which meant Bermuda shorts and jaunty plaid hat for Catherine and purple skinny jeans and a black and purple Nike high tops for Laura. And less than two hours to round up whatever loved ones, friends and co-workers were available and rush down to the Fulton County Government Center for a mass wedding for same-sex couples that began a 1 p.m.
Now, at 1:53 p.m., Laura slid the other borrowed ring onto Catherine’s finger.
“With this ring, I thee wed,” Laura said, as a soft smile spread across her face.
“Let these rings be given a as a token of your affection, sincerity and fidelity to one another,” the judge said. “In as much as Catherine and Laura have consented together in wedlock and have witnessed the same before this company and pledged their vows to each other, by the authority vested in me by the state of Georgia, I now pronounce you wife and wife.”
A cheer went up. Laura’s mother, Sylvia applauded. Her father, Jorge, smiled as he recorded the moment on his iPad and the newlyweds hugged, Catherine lifting Laura off her feet.
There were four Supreme Court justices who voted against gay marriage. But for Catherine and Laura, as they embraced in the auditorium, there were no dissenters to their union.
A day to celebrate
After the ceremony, their friends, Hilary Smith and Katie Acosta, gave them single stems of pink and yellow roses. Catherine, 43, and Laura, 32, handed them back the borrowed rings. As they walked to their cars and Catherine’s scooter to head over to The Pinewood restaurant in Decatur for a post-wedding family lunch, Laura listened to advice from Katie and Hilary. The two women had had their own wedding in New York in 2012. Even though Laura is an attorney who specializes in farm workers’ rights, Katie and Hilary wanted the newlyweds to make sure they made their own legal check lists.
“Wills,” Katie said. “You’ve got to get those.”
“Definitely,” Hilary said.
Laura agreed, though the ink was barely dry on the marriage license. The legal contortions that their other gay married friends had had to go through to assure they’d have inheritance claims, property rights and hospital visits, would not be an issue for the new couple. Under the court’s ruling, as spouse and spouse, they could navigate legal forms and contracts as one.
But there would be time for that later. This was a day to celebrate.
The restaurant they’d chosen for the wedding dinner was the site of their second date. At the table with Laura’s parents, her cousin, Angel Ortiz Ricard, and his partner of 19 years, Julio Taillepierre, the newlyweds told the story of how the met. It was in May 2014, and it was virtual through Match.com. The first face-to-face date had been a Sunday morning yoga class where Laura had broken out in a case of hives so bad that she wondered if there’d be a second date. Catherine, an anesthesiologist’s assistant at Children’s Hospital, wasn’t fazed by the breakout.
“You were perfect,” Catherine said.
The date kept going and they talked for hours about their backgrounds. They’d both gone to Emory. They’d both ultimately chosen helping professions, though Laura’s first job was as a newspaper journalist in New York. They both believed in justice, family and the sort of inclusive world view that is gained by travel.
Laura first told her parents about Catherine four months later. It was also her first time coming out to them.
Sylvia and Jorge Rivera, high school sweethearts, said that they were surprised but that above all else they valued family. If their daughter was going to build hers differently they would accept it, and provide the sort of support and advice that only their 40-year union could provide.
“Communication between us is very important,” said Jorge, an emergency room doctor.
Perhaps that’s why he dialed up Catherine’s parents at the dinner table and had the table do a Face-time chat with them in Michigan.
“Why weren’t we invited?” Bill Simonsen asked his daughter.
She told him it had been a split-second decision, but promised she and her wife would come visit them in the coming weeks to celebrate.
A waiter had come to the table earlier and poured glasses of champagne. Glasses were raised but before the main course was served, almost as a prayer, Sylvia read aloud a tweet quoting President Barack Obama’s word’s outside the White House that morning.
“’When all Americans are treated equally, we are all more free,’” Sylvia read.
“Here’s to being married”
There was another gathering after The Pinewood, this one at La Hacienda in Midtown. The table was filled with other couples celebrating the decision, saying in between sips of margaritas they weren’t sure the day would ever come.
“Here’s to being married in 50 states,” someone at the said, raising a glass.
People said they’d cried tears of joy for hours after the decision. A waiter took a picture with the newlyweds. And Kim Priest-Beaty, 39, said she was happy Catherine and Laura would not have to go through what she and her partner had when they filed their taxes last year. Priest-Beaty and her partner, who’d been married in New York, had to have their accountant fill out five different income tax forms. It reminded Priest-Beaty of how she felt after she and her spouse returned to Georgia after their wedding; happy, but somehow, less than.
Friday, she no longer felt that way. Her advice to the young couple: “Live like they’re still dating.”
As people got up to leave, Catherine hugged Laura’s mother. She told her that she’d always take care of her daughter.
So many other issues
Finally, alone in their DeKalb County backyard, Laura and Catherine played with their dogs, Lingo and Lex, and another, Mikey, that they were keeping for a friend. The women sat on the grass holding hands, exhausted, watching the sun set on a day like no other.
A county away, Hopwell Missionary Baptist Church in Norcross was holding a meeting in the wake of the decision that made the couple a legally recognized family.
“We stand up and speak out against homosexuality,” Pastor William Sheals told his congregation.
Laura and Catherine did not hear that word of dissent, but they were aware that the events of the last 12 hours had strengthened opposition to unions like theirs.
“I didn’t necessarily feel like we needed marriage to legitimize our relationship,” Laura said. “But it’s not just marriage that’s an issue. There are so many other issues that need to be addressed for LBGT people—access to health care, freedom from violence, employment protection.”
Those were the next battles. But on this night they looked only to the next day, their first full one as Mrs. and Mrs. Rivera-Simonsen. Their plans were modest; a breakfast of huevos rancheros and coffee, a walk in the woods with the dogs and then the real business of marriage—doing house work and cleaning out the basement on a rainy afternoon.
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