Down East 2013 ©
By Edgar Allen Beem
At the stroke of midnight, as Friday, December 28, 2012, ticked over into Saturday, December 29, 2012, same-sex marriage became legal in Maine and hundreds of supporters and celebrants gathered at Portland City Hall to observe the historic occasion. As three hundred well-wishers, buoyed by jazz bands, bubble blowing, boutonnières, free cupcakes, and signs reading “Thank you, Maine,” braved temperatures in the twenties outside on the plaza, fifteen gay and lesbian couples were admitted to the second floor city clerk’s office one at a time to receive their marriage licenses.
The first couple through the door were massage therapist Michael Snell and photographer Steven Bridges, both smiling ear to ear and wearing matching “Love is Love” T-shirts. Along with Mayor Michael Brennan, City Clerk Katherine Jones, and vital records clerk Christina Horne, Snell and Bridges, who have been together for nine years, were met by a crush of media, all jockeying and juggling in order to find the best angle to document Maine’s first gay marriage license.
After Snell and Bridges repaired to the State of Maine Room for the brief civil ceremony that made them, at 12:25 a.m., Maine’s first gay married couple, Bridges told reporters, “We finally feel equal and happy to live in Maine.”
“People in Maine are fair,” said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, “and they recognized that it wasn’t fair to tell a certain segment of the population that they couldn’t have the same rights as everyone else. We’re a state that places a high premium on being fair.”
In all, some forty-four same-sex couples received marriage licenses on December 29 from municipal offices in Portland, South Portland, Augusta, Bangor, Brewer, Brunswick, Falmouth, Gardiner, Hallowell, and Northport. Not only did the newlyweds usher in a new era of civil rights for Maine’s gay residents, they are in the vanguard of what many see as a potentially profitable new venture for Maine as a same-sex wedding destination. Just how profitable is difficult to determine due to the complex history of same-sex marriage in Maine and America.
Same-sex marriage was originally approved by the Maine Legislature in May of 2009, but in November of that same year opponents managed to repeal the marriage equality law in a statewide referendum by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. Three years later, Question 1 on the November 6, 2012, ballot — “Do you favor a law allowing marriage licenses for same-sex couples that protects religious freedom by ensuring no religion or clergy is required to perform such a marriage in violation of the religious beliefs?” — passed by the exact same margin, marking the first time the people of a state had authorized same-sex marriage by popular vote.
On the same day, voters in Maryland and Washington also endorsed same-sex marriage, albeit by supporting existing legislation. That brings to ten the number of places in the United States — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Iowa, Maryland, Washington, and the District of Columbia — where same-sex couples may legally marry.
In Maine, residents must apply for marriage licenses in the towns and cities where they live, but out-of-state visitors may apply for marriage licenses anywhere they like. The hope is that visitors to Vacationland will take advantage of marriage equality to get married in Maine, in the process contributing a new revenue stream to the state’s economy.
In 2009, the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law published a study entitled “The Economic Impact of Extending Marriage to Same-Sex Couples in Maine,” which projected that 2,316 of the 4,644 same-sex couples in Maine would marry in the first three years after legalization and that, over the same three years, 15,657 same-sex couples would come to Maine from out-of-state to get married, pumping $60 million into the state’s economy and another $3.6 million in taxes and fees into state coffers.
In November of 2012, however, the Williams Institute revised its economic impact estimates downward, noting that there was now a lot of competition for destination wedding venues. The conservative new estimate was just $15.5 million over three years, representing solely resident Maine couples.
One of the first businesses in line for a slice of the same-sex wedding pie, whatever the size may be, was Gay Weddings in Maine.com, an online wedding directory of gay-friendly vendors and venues. The Web site is the brainchild of Portland marketing executive Sid Tripp, who also co-founded the Downeast Pride Alliance business networking group in 2008.
“Going to a vendor and saying, ‘We’re a gay couple and we want to get married’ is a daunting task,” says Tripp, who charges anywhere from $75 to $480 a year for listings on the Gay Weddings in Maine Web site. “It’s a site people can feel comfortable in using.”
Diane York, of Diane York Weddings & Events, is one of four wedding planners who signed up for the same-sex wedding directory. “Everyone sees this as a win-win situation,” says York of the arrival of same-sex marriage in Maine. “Some people have a hard time getting their minds around what people do in bed, but I don’t care. It’s the fair thing to do and it’s a long time coming.”
Despite the Williams Institute’s decision not to factor out-of-state couples into the Maine same-sex marriage economic impact, York expects it to be significant. “Ninety-five percent of my clients come from out of state,” says York, “but almost all have some connection to Maine. They went to school here, or they have a camp here, or they have relatives here. I anticipate there will be some gay and lesbian people who left the state to go to a larger community who now will come back to Maine to get married.”
The fact that only forty-four couples took out marriage licenses on the first day they were available does not worry York. “Most people,” she reasons, “don’t want to get married in the winter in Maine.”
Dan Kennedy, owner of Harmon’s & Barton’s, Minott’s Flowers, and Sawyer & Company florists, shares Diane York’s optimism. “We had booked three weddings before it was even legal,” says Kennedy. “As of today, we have booked four weddings and have several commitments.”
Kennedy, whose Greater Portland floral shops have been doing gay weddings, or commitment ceremonies, since 2002, reports that a dozen same-sex couples made inquiries at the twenty-third annual Maine Wedding Association Bridal Show and Wedding Expo on Sunday, January 6. “It was the first time we’ve had same-sex couples openly discussing their weddings and arrangements with us,” says Kennedy. “It’s just starting, but I think it’s going to be a shot to the economy in 2013.”
Jo Moser, one of eight photographers signed up so far on the Gay Weddings in Maine Web site, believes that older couples who have held commitment services in the past will not be in any rush to legalize their marriages, but she expects a steady flow of both in-state and out-of-state couples.
“I have been a photographer for forty years and I have been documenting gay life in California and Maine for thirty-eight years,” says Moser. “Now that we have marriage equality, today I booked three weddings. It’s a good day.”
While Maine’s same-sex marriage law specifically exempts churches and clergy, places of public accommodation, meaning any business that provides goods, services, or facilities to the public, would be guilty of discrimination if they refuse to serve customers based on sexual orientation.
One gray area that caught a gay couple in Litchfield by surprise concerned the application of the new same-sex marriage law to Maine’s two thousand notaries public. Rich Hirschmann and Richard Acker, shop owners in Portland’s Old Port and Litchfield residents, went to the Litchfield town office on Monday, December 31, and secured a marriage license. When they asked if one of the town clerks would marry them, however, one town employee informed them that the two town employees who were notaries public were “shy about things like this.” The men went away without getting married.
Town clerk Doris Parlin, who is a notary public, says she did not know Hirschmann and Acker wanted to get married on the spot. “I would have [performed the marriage ceremony], but not on that day,” says Parlin. “It was a horrendous day. We were way too busy.”
On January 8, Litchfield selectmen took the decision out of the clerks’ hands, voting 3-0 to no longer allow municipal clerks to perform weddings at town hall at all. Town Manager Michael Byron told the Portland Press Herald the selectmen acted on his recommendation, saying, “With all the calls on municipal clerks for regular services, they don’t have the time to perform weddings.”
“The religious exemption in Maine’s new marriage law doesn’t cover notaries, just clergy, churches, and religious institutions,” explains Mary L. Bonauto, Civil Rights Project director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) in Boston, and a Portland resident. “And for those notaries who do offer their services as wedding officiants, they must do so on a non-discriminatory basis. Notaries who don’t routinely do weddings can’t be made to perform marriages for same-sex couples, or any other couples for that matter.”
Art and antiques dealer Seth Thayer and couture furrier Greg Tinder were the only couple to secure a marriage license at the Northport town office on December 29. “We were so excited we were finally able to do it that we wanted to do it the first day,” says Thayer. “We were also scared that we could have the right taken away.”
Thayer and Tinder, who moved to Maine from Chicago in 2001, were devastated in 2009 when Maine’s new same-sex marriage law was rejected at referendum. They, like all of Maine’s four thousand same-sex couples, could have gone to Massachusetts, Vermont, or New Hampshire to get married, but Thayer says, “No, it wouldn’t count.” They decided to wait until their marriage would be recognized in Maine, all of which raises the question of whether a significant number of out-of-state couples are also waiting for same-sex marriage to become legal in their home states.
Thayer and Tinder are planning a big wedding bash this summer for family and friends, but on historic December 29, they simply went down to the shore at Saturday Cove in Northport with a few friends and took their vows overlooking the sea. “It was a spiritual service to us,” says Thayer. “This is our spirituality right here — nature, sunsets, walks on the shore.”
“We refer to it as God’s platform,” says Tinder of the couple’s shorefront wedding.
Most same-sex weddings to date have been civil rather than church weddings, but that will no doubt change. The religious exemption language inserted into Question 1 to indemnify churches and clergy was meant to appease conservative and evangelical Christians who oppose same-sex marriage, but many Christian denominations, among them Congregational and some Episcopal churches, as well as Unitarian Universalist congregations, have championed marriage equality and will sanctify same-sex marriages.
Historic preservation architects Nancy Barba and Cynthia Wheelock believed it was as important to be married in the eyes of God as in the view of the state. They sanctified their union on January 2, 1999, in a blessing ceremony at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland. The ceremony was attended by some eighty friends and family and is memorialized in a beautiful stained-glass window in the St. Luke’s sanctuary. “It was for all intents and purposes a wedding,” says Barba. “It just didn’t have legal standing.”
Barba and Wheelock waited in line at Portland City Hall on the night of December 28 with their daughter, Eliza, 11. They plan on having a small civil wedding ceremony sometime within the allotted ninety days from the issuance of their marriage license. “Whatever we can do to strengthen our family is amazing,” says Barba. “The more strength you bring to a relationship, the better it is for society.”
Reverend Kate Dalton is the associate pastor of First Parish Church (UCC) in Yarmouth. She and teacher Nora O’Farrell were “married” in a church service in California in 2006 and made it official in 2008 during the brief time same-sex marriage was legal in the Golden State.
Now that same-sex marriage is legal in Maine, Dalton and O’Farrell are planning to renew their vows to please their eight-year-old sons. “Our boys are saying to us, without being prompted, ‘It’s a really big deal. When are you going to do it?’ ” says Dalton.
Opponents have portrayed same-sex marriage as a radical redefinition of marriage, while proponents have championed it as a simple matter of civil rights. But what same-sex marriage really represents, says Dalton, is the desire of many gay and lesbian couples to embrace very conventional family values. “There is a whole section of the gay community that asks, ‘Why are we even fighting for this?’ ” she says. “But for a family unit, it’s the easiest way to get the protections other families get.”
Among the protections same-sex couples and their families are seeking are access to health insurance through a spouse’s workplace, child custody following a divorce, sick leave to care for a non-biological child, ability to file joint returns and take advantage of tax breaks for married people, and access to Social Security benefits after the death of a spouse. Some of these rights will not accrue to same-sex couples until same-sex marriage becomes federal as well as state law.
Jill Barkley worked with the Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to help pass Maine’s same-sex marriage law. She is now launching Jill Bean Wedding and Event Design and is planning a same-sex wedding expo in Portland in April. Her own wedding plans, however, are up in the air.
“I am planning to get married,” Barkley explains, “but my partner is Canadian. I cannot under current law sponsor my partner for a Green Card. I am forced to choose between my country and the person I love.”
The U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments on the constitutionality of both the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and California’s Proposition 8, which overturned that state’s same-sex marriage law in late March. Until the court rules, Barkley and all gay and lesbian people have more rights under Maine law than federal law. That’s cold comfort for some, like photographer Jo Moser and her partner, who have held three wedding celebrations in California and Maine over the years. “We won’t do it again until it becomes federal,” Moser says.
Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer from Yarmouth who has been contributing to Down East since 1983.