Near the end of a long line, Vanessa Vanderburg and Katie Turner wait outside the Salt Lake County clerk’s office with their arms wrapped around each other. Every time they are jostled by a camera crew, by a politician, by another couple — by the general chaos that is their wedding day — they jostle in unison.
As Friday’s ruling against Utah’s gay marriage ban raises loud questions about civil rights, state’s rights and family values, Vanessa and Katie quietly embrace. They aren’t here to make a statement. They’re here to make a promise.
‘It just felt right’ • That marriage is a big step in Vanessa and Katie’s relationship may go without saying. But the 100-plus couples waiting in line represent 100-plus relationships, all in different stages.
Vanessa and Katie are typically young, blushing Utah brides. At 19 and 20, they began dating seven months ago. Talk of marriage started only two months later — “It just felt right,” Vanessa says — and this week they were tentatively planning a summer ceremony in New Mexico, where Vanessa’s family lives. The conversation was precipitated in part by the engagement ring Katie ordered Thursday as a surprise for Vanessa.
Gripping the marriage-license application on Friday, Vanessa still doesn’t know about the ring.
Other couples around them are in very different places. Ahead of them in line, Lisa and Valerie Lanoue had a ceremony a year ago, on the fifth anniversary of their first date. Just behind them in line, Corey and Trish North are raising children together. They had planned to marry in California but were reluctant because their 6-year-old son and two daughters, ages 6 and 10, would not be able to make the trip. On Friday, the whole family is together, which matters way more than the fact that Corey and Trish are wearing, respectively, a hoodie and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt.
More than paper • It takes more than 2½ hours for Katie and Vanessa to reach the clerk’s desk. Office staff members are growing weary after processing more than 120 marriage licenses and keeping doors open well after normal business hours.
A screen at the front desk lights up with a certificate showing Vanessa and Katie’s names. The two women gasp and fall into a hug.
This is real.
Of course, Lisa and Valerie Lanoue say, these relationships were real beforehand. One of the hazards of making history is that the event can eclipse commitments that were meaningful in their own right. The Lanoues’ wedding Friday is a modest do-over of last year’s ceremony; their best friend is officiating again, and a few relatives have dashed out to witness. This time, though, the vow is between the state and the couple.
“This is our right,” Lisa says. “It’s more than a piece of paper. It’s everything from taxes to hospital visitation to Social Security.”
“And adoption!” a sister-in-law pipes up. “I want them to adopt!”
For Corey and Trish North, the wedding is all about the children. When they kiss at the end of the ceremony, their three children promptly burst into heckling “ooooohs” and smoochie sounds. Their 6-year-old daughter imitates her mothers, grabbing her now-stepbrother in an exaggerated embrace.
The Norths’ wedding hasn’t just made history, it has made a family.
Years of waiting • What all of the couples in line share is urgency. Vanessa and Katie learned of the federal court ruling and borrowed a car to drive from Roy at 4:05 p.m., less than an hour before Salt Lake County would cut off the line of applicants. All wedding planning went to the back burner.
“We can do that still,” Katie says. “We just didn’t want to wait and then, on Monday morning, find out it’s over.”
The Utah attorney general’s office has requested an emergency stay halting same-sex weddings while it appeals the ruling. If the federal court grants the stay, it could be months or years before gay couples can marry in Utah again. The line began forming at the clerk’s office almost immediately; Michael Ferguson and Seth Anderson were at their business, The Queen’s Tea, when they heard the news just after 2 p.m. They closed up shop, ran to the clerk’s office and became the first same-sex couple legally married in the Beehive State.
Katie and Vanessa get in just under the wire. After a sheriff’s deputy herds them into the clerk’s office, the door is shut. The crowd protests.
“We haven’t been waiting for ‘a few hours!’” one woman shouts. “We’ve been waiting for years.”
Behind the crowd, Terri Henry and Penny Kirby are crestfallen. The Springville couple rushed to Salt Lake County after the Utah County clerk’s office denied them a license.
“They gave us this instead,” Terri says, holding out a letter in which Clerk Bryan Thompson explains that he knows the gay-marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional, but he will not issue licenses to same-sex couples until he receives further clarification from the state.
“Then we watched them give marriage licenses to two straight couples,” Terri says, starting to cry. Penny holds her hand.
Promise to love • A woman who goes by Rev. Heron stands outside the clerk’s office, wearing a rainbow scarf and holding a sign advertising, “FREE OFFICIANT.” Katie and Vanessa cuddle in front of her for the ceremony.
“I promise to love you
in frailty and in health,
in plenty and in poverty,
in life and beyond
where we will meet, remember, and love again.”
None of the normal wedding stuff is there. The brides are wearing jeans and T-shirts. Their photographer is some guy holding a cellphone. Rev. Heron snags two strangers to sign as witnesses. Someone shoves a white flower into Vanessa’s hand.
“You are now bound together in sacred union,” Rev. Heron announces.
Vanessa and Katie share a long kiss and hold each other tight. Katie finally confesses that the ring has been ordered.
Vanessa freezes and covers her mouth with her hands.
“I bought it yesterday so I could officially propose,” Katie explains.
Vanessa’s eyes fill with tears. So much of their wedding day has been defined by the outside world: set into motion by a judge’s order, made frantic by state legal action, held up by some as a symbol of equality, decried by others as a sign of degeneracy, examined, fought over, picked apart. All day, Vanessa and Katie have held onto each other through a flurry of other people’s interests.
But the ring is just between Katie and Vanessa. It means nothing more or less than love.