The woman at the counter thought it was a joke.
Michael Ferguson and Seth Anderson were in the Salt Lake County Government Center on Dec. 20, 2013, to apply for a marriage license.
“They thought I was there to apply as a farce,” Ferguson said recently. “They had not heard yet. They all gasped.”
On that Friday before Christmas, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled in the case of Kitchen v. Herbert that Utah’s laws against same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. It was the first time a federal judge ruled such a ban violated the U.S. Constitution’s promise of “equal protection under the law.”
The lawyers representing the state and defending the ban had neglected a bit of routine paperwork: a motion to stay the judge’s ruling pending an appeal, in case the state lost.
Ferguson and Anderson were the first of more than 1,200 Utah couples who went to county clerks' offices in 22 counties to become legally married in the 17-day window after the ruling.
In Salt Lake County, the decision led to spontaneous and chaotic joy at the county clerk’s office. Elsewhere in Utah, the feeling was frustration as clerks dragged their feet for days before issuing licenses.
This December, many couples are celebrating their fifth anniversary — wood is the traditional gift — and thinking back on the wild rush to marry.
Ferguson and Anderson, who met in late 2011 via Facebook, ran their own tea business and were preparing for that weekend’s Winter Farmers Market. Then they got a call from an attorney friend.
“He said, ‘There’s no stay right now on the decision, but there could be one any second. You should get married now, because they can’t tell you ‘no,’" Ferguson recalled.
“Twenty minutes after that call, we closed the tea shop,” Anderson said.
They were so sure there would be a crowd at the clerk’s office that when they were stopped in the left-turn lane on State Street and 2100 South, Ferguson jumped out to get a place in line while Anderson parked the car.
Inside, “it was just quiet," Anderson said. “It was a sleepy Friday afternoon.”
The day before, Ferguson had visited these same offices, meeting with the staff there to prepare for a Valentine’s Day protest against Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage.
So when Ferguson and Anderson came back, the employee helping them thought it might be a practice run. Anderson showed her his phone and the email from their friend that had a copy of Shelby’s ruling.
“She said, ‘I need to talk to somebody,’” Anderson said.
While they waited, Anderson said, “I started tweeting about it, mainly to keep a log for myself. … All of a sudden, my phone was going crazy. I was getting retweeted and beeped and messaged.”
The rush of people started coming, many of them spurred by Anderson’s tweets. “Other people were like, ‘Can we hang out with you?’” Anderson said. “We said, ‘Sure.’ Any wedding party is better than none.”
The county’s top lawyer, District Attorney Sim Gill, came in next. “Give me 20 minutes. I gotta get everybody up to speed,” Gill said, as Anderson recalled. Gill and the employees came back, and Ferguson and Anderson got their marriage license. A friend, an ordained minister, performed the ceremony. The media also saw the tweets, so the couple stayed for interviews.
That night, Anderson said, “everything felt different. The ground felt different. The air felt different. Even the inversion didn’t feel the same.”
Weston Clark and Brandon Mark, who had lived together since 2004, were in the midst of a crazy month that December. They were selling their house in the Avenues and buying one near the University of Utah, and the child they were going to adopt — their second — was about to be born in Detroit.
Clark, who works on the staff of Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, was chipping ice off their new driveway when he got a text with the news of Shelby’s ruling. He called Mark, an attorney, who went online to print up a marriage-license application to fill out in advance.
“We forget that there was so much unknown that day,” Mark said. “In the entire time we were standing in line, we imagined there would be a team of black suits to shut it all down.”
Also in line were Amber Burnham and Elisa Noel, who had started dating in 2007 and in 2010 got married in Canada, where same-sex marriage was recognized. They were at a liquor store, stocking up for a cocktail party, when Noel’s brother called.
“My brother said, ‘You have to go before they put a stay on this,’” Noel said. “We took our box of liquor and threw it in the car.” They high-tailed it to the Salt Lake County Government Center, calling their friends along the way.
Noel and Burnham, who co-own a physical therapy studio, were still in their winter wear after a day of snowshoeing. “Standing in that [building], we were all sweaty, and everybody was laughing and hugging and crying,” Noel said. “Then I came around the corner and I saw my brother and his wife and their kids and my sister, and they’re just bawling.”
Both couples had then-Mayor Ralph Becker officiate their weddings under a media spotlight.
Clark and Mark were flagged down by Utah Rep. Patrice Arent, who had a TV crew with her looking to broadcast a couple, any couple, say their vows on camera before Becker. “I think we’re the first and only gay couple to get married on live television in Utah,” Mark said. “Vegas had nothing on that.”
Burnham and Noel also were married by Becker, in his red sweater vest. An Associated Press photographer took their picture, which appeared in Saturday’s papers worldwide.
“We started getting messages from all over,” Noel said. “That support that next morning was amazing, to see that it had reached internationally.”
Brian Benington was picking up last-minute items for the Christmas party he and his longtime partner, Duane Jennings, were throwing Dec. 20. He heard Anderson, newly married, being interviewed on the radio.
“I said to Duane, ‘I think we’re being punked,’” said Benington, 67, who teaches dance at Salt Lake Community College.
Jennings checked Facebook and found the stories of friends who had rushed to the county clerk’s office.
“All these friends are asking us, ‘Are you going to get married?’,” said Jennings, 59, a co-founder of Affirmation, a support organization for LGBT people who are or were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Jennings and Benington, who have lived together since 2005, proceeded with their party. One family who attended, the Danzigs, had been at the Salt Lake County Government Center earlier in the day, guests at the instant wedding of two women they knew. (That couple recently divorced.)
“It was crazy. There were people everywhere,” said Mary Danzig. “Every time someone got their license, people would cheer.”
What Danzig saw was bittersweet. “A couple in back of us, one of them was wearing their work shirt. It said ‘Chuck-a-Rama,’” she recalled. “People didn’t have a chance to get ready for their wedding.”
So the Danzigs took music to the government center. Mary, her husband, Peter, and their three daughters — then ages 8, 11 and 14 — sang and played instruments in the main foyer on Monday, Dec. 23.
“We did all the classic wedding songs,” Mary Danzig said. “And some folk songs and love songs. Just different songs that seemed to fit the occasion.”
The Danzigs provided the music for Benington and Jennings, who went in early on Monday morning and joined a line that snaked through two levels of the building. The couple brought an entourage, including friend Pat Gamble-Hovey to officiate and author Gerda Saunders to recite what Benington called “a rollicking, naughty little poem.”
The ceremony, Jennings said, “was really impromptu, but we really wanted to make it an event.”
Raylynn Marvel and Patsy Carter got their license in Salt Lake County on Dec. 23. The location wasn’t their first choice.
The couple, who have lived together since 2005, were living in Lehi when they heard about the Shelby ruling. They rushed to the Utah County clerk’s office in Provo.
They got to the Utah County Administration Building, which “was strangely very quiet,” Marvel said. “The clerk came out ready for battle. He said, ‘I want legal documentation.’”
Carter felt deflated. “I wanted to find out why he was saying ‘no’ when everybody was saying ‘yes,’” she said.
There was one other couple there: Loreen Major and Arlene Arnold, retired teachers who had been together for 20 years.
“The lady who we talked to was kind of flustered,” Major recalled. Eventually, the county clerk emerged. “He said, ‘We’re not giving those out today. I’m waiting to hear officially that it’s OK.’ We were like, ‘It’s already official.’ He was kind of stumbling over himself.”
Both couples went home empty-handed that Friday. Major said she and Arnold returned Monday, the 23rd, and “it was pretty much the same thing.”
Marvel and Carter didn’t wait. They drove up to Salt Lake City early that Monday morning, getting in line around 2 a.m. “We weren’t going to give Utah County the opportunity to say ‘no’ again,” Carter said.
The atmosphere was joyous, if tense. Hanging over everything was the fear Shelby, or a higher court, would issue a stay that would stop county officials from issuing licenses. “The clerk was ‘hurry, hurry, hurry,’” Carter said.
With the Utah County clerk’s office closed for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it wasn’t until Dec. 26 that Major and Arnold got their license. They were wed on the 27th.
“It was small, intimate and in our living room,” Major said. “We just let our friends know. We got a cake from Costco, and moved the furniture around, and did it.”
The Utah attorney general’s office finally got its stay on Jan. 6, 2014, from U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Politicians talked about the possibility of nullifying the 1,200-plus licenses issued within those 17 days, but it never happened.
Nearly 18 months later, on June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples in the United States had the right to marry.
“It felt, to me, pretty much the same,” said Major, now a special-education teacher at Mountain Heights Academy, an online charter school. “It was a safety net. We knew we were legally married, so we couldn’t be denied access to each other if we were sick.”
When Arlene Arnold died in September 2017, Major got Arnold’s Social Security survivor’s benefits and had the final word over her funeral arrangements.
Anderson and Ferguson closed their tea business as their academic career took them east. In June 2017, they moved to Boston, where Ferguson is in a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience at Harvard and Anderson, a historian, is seeking his doctorate at Boston University.
Anderson said he felt the full force of being married when Ferguson was a plaintiff in a lawsuit in New Jersey, which was aimed at shutting down “conversion therapy” services that promise to “cure” people of being gay. During Ferguson’s deposition, Anderson sat with him. “For the first time, I could say, ‘No, I am legally married. You cannot kick me out of the room.’” (Ferguson won the case, and the therapy programs had to cease operations.)
Marvel and Carter, now living in Midvale, have gone through what many married couples do: buying a house, dealing with Marvel’s health scare, adopting a couple of dogs. “The thing we argue about the most is how to make the bed,” Marvel said.
Benington and Jennings, who grew up in Latter-day Saint communities, have noticed more acceptance, or at least tolerance, of their marriage. This month, they went to see the lights at Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City and stepped into the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, where an older missionary couple were greeting visitors.
“I said, ‘This is my husband, Duane,’” Benington said. “Literally, she didn’t even blink. They’re used to it, or at least respectful.”
Burnham and Noel had a similar experience after they bought a house in Millcreek, where an elderly LDS couple brought over banana bread. “That’s what we want,” Burnham said. “We just want to be your neighbors.”
One thing these couples had to decide was how much to celebrate the anniversary of Dec. 20th, or 23rd, or 26th. Some prefer to mark the date of their wedding, before their marriages were legal, or the date they moved in together. Clark and Mark celebrate in April, when they had their first date.
Considering the crush of the holidays, Mark said, “nobody would choose to get married on Dec. 20.”