Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones waited for more than a decade for this moment.
The two Duval Street bartenders stood on the steps of the historic Monroe County Courthouse in the twilight of 12:18 a.m. Tuesday and, as a crowd of hundreds watched, exchanged rings and then vows during a ceremony led by a police chaplain. And then, while onlookers pelted their black tuxedos with rice, they shared a lingering, tender kiss, their first as spouses.
In a historic and emotional night for South Florida -- one many thought might never come -- the newlyweds from Key West were the first gay couple to marry in Monroe County and among the first in the entire state after Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage was lifted at midnight. The same courthouses would be open again after dawn, but for many gay and lesbian couples, waiting any longer wasn’t an option.
“I’m glad it’s finally legal,” said a teary-eyed Jones, who along with Huntsman successfully sued Monroe County’s clerk of court to demand they be allowed to marry.
Their lawsuit and several others fought and won around the state led to the unprecedented festivities in the early morning hours of Jan. 6, 2015 and the preceding afternoon. In Miami-Dade, the state’s first ever gay couple wed before 2 p.m. Monday during a courthouse ceremony. And some 12 hours later, Huntsman and Jones were married in Key West, and clerks in Palm Beach and Broward counties held mass wedding ceremonies in their courthouses after signing marriage licenses.
Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman officiated the first of two mass ceremonies around 2 a.m. in Fort Lauderdale. Dozens of couples participated and the shutter sound of photographs continued nonstop.
“Never forget that love brought you here today,” Forman told them.
A few moments later, Forman asked, “Do you take each other to be your spouse and partner for life?”
There was a chorus of “I do,” along with what sounded like the popping of champagne bottles. In this case, it was cider (you can't bring alcohol in the courthouse).
Then the rings came out.
“Repeat after me,” Forman said. “With this ring, in love and truth, I marry you.”
When Forman finally said “I pronounce you legally married,” the room erupted in cheers.
For some involved, the evening was as magical as it was surreal. Broward Sheriff Scott Israel stopped by to wish Detective David Currie and his new spouse Aaron Woodard well in their marriage. Currie was dressed in full uniform.
John and Frank of Oakland Park, who soon would share the same last hyphenated last name, Duffy-Sweeney, said getting married on the first day possible felt “special.” They brought their 4-year-old adopted son, Zachary, with them, and all wore matching lavender outfits.
“The support has just been unbelievable and overwhelming,” said Frank Duffy-Sweeney. “My sister called, she was upset that she wasn't the first one told...it gives me chills now to think of all the support that we have.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Florida’s same-sex marriage ban was approved by 62 percent of voters as part of Amendment 2, an initiative organized by the Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council. But that 2008 ban and others across the country were dealt a blow five years later when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law barring the federal government from recognizing gay marriages.
In the 18 months that followed, five Florida cases were fought by gay couples and won in state and federal court. Four were fought in South Florida. The fifth and farthest reaching of those decisions, made in August by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee, led to the lifting Tuesday morning of the state’s gay marriage ban.
Hinkle had placed a stay on his ruling that the ban was unconstitutional to allow for appeals. But despite attempts by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to overturn Hinkle, as well as several others that struck down Florida’s ban, no appeals or extensions were granted. And so for the first time in Florida gay couples were able to marry the ones they loved.
“This is a long time coming,” said Key West commissioner and former mayor Jimmy Weekley, who greeted Huntsman and Jones before midnight. “I have been pushing this since 1999.”
The implications are broad: U.S. Census and other data suggest there are about 48,500 cohabiting same-sex couples in Florida, according to Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA law school in Los Angeles. Same-sex couples are now able to marry in 36 states and Washington D.C. The ruling also means gay marriages performed outside Florida will be recognized in Miami-Dade, although there is still a possibility the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue of whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
In the Keys, where Chief Circuit Judge Luis Garcia was the first in the state to rule Florida’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional, the office of Monroe County Clerk Amy Heavilin, a Republican, opened at 12 a.m. to marry 100 couples. First in line were Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones.
Wearing black tuxedos with blue vests and white flower boutonnieres pinned to their lapels, they arrived at the Monroe County Courthouse about 11 p.m. Monday in rented golf carts, horns blazing before posing for photos. When the couple began their ceremony, hundreds waited outside for them to arrive as a married couple.
Around the same time in Palm Beach County, dozens of couples queued in Delray Beach. The courthouse there began taking license applications around 10:30 p.m. As they waited, couples danced and sang, according to reporters on the scene. Later, the clerk of courts conducted a mass ceremony from a podium mounted on a staircase.
“It’s part of history. We wanted to be part of it,” Julia Borghese, who was third in line with her partner of 10 years, Irma Oliver, told the Palm Beach Post.
In Broward, about 400 people gathered inside a third-floor county courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale before midnight. The room temperature was a bit stuffy and hot, particularly for those dressed in suits, but the atmosphere was happy and festive. The clerk’s office was taking applications, and when couples began to fill out their paperwork, “My one and only love” began to play over their speakers.
Stork's, a bakery in Wilton Manors, provided free coffee and served white wedding cakes.
John and Frank Duffy-Sweeney, together for eight years, wore matching lavender shirts and ties. Their four-year-old adopted son, Zachary, wore a lavender shirt too (but with sneakers).
Both men raised Zachary, but until now, state law didn't allow John's name to be added to the birth certificate. As a married couple, John said that will now change. And the couple's life insurance policy can now be unified in the standard way enjoyed by other married couples.
“All those finances are getting tied together, finally,” John Duffy-Sweeney said.
The two men came with two other couples they know, who also planned to wed.
Elsewhere in Florida, some clerks chose to open as regularly scheduled Tuesday morning, meaning a slightly longer wait for anxious couples. Other clerks in more conservative counties in North Florida and the Tampa Bay area chose to stop conducting marriage ceremonies altogether, though they must still issue marriage licenses.
But in Miami-Dade, Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel did the reverse, and lifted her own stay early Monday afternoon, bringing cheers and tears of joy from the plaintiffs. Two of the six couples who had sued — Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello of Coconut Grove, and Jeff and Todd Delmay of Hollywood — were the first to be married, by Zabel herself.
The couples exchanged rings surrounded by family, friends and a pack of television crews at downtown Miami’s historic civil courthouse following Zabel’s 11 a.m. ruling.
“In the big picture, does it really matter whether or not I lift the stay or leave it until tomorrow?” Zabel said from the bench. “I’m lifting the stay.”
The rush of applications on same-sex marriage licenses is expected to continue Tuesday, when many clerks around the state will open around 8 a.m. to begin issuing same-sex licenses for the first time. South Florida courthouses will also re-open in the morning, as regularly scheduled.
Contributor Nancy Klingener and Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.