Same-sex weddings resume in Sonoma County

My lawfully wedded spouse.

Those four words resounded conspicuously Monday during each exchange of vows at the Sonoma County Clerk’s Office as same-sex couples, many fully partnered for decades, exercised their newly legal right to marry.

In a scene that was alternately solemn and joyous and celebratory, more than a dozen gay and lesbian pairs rushed to be among the first in line as Sonoma County resumed issuing marriage licenses and performing weddings for couples of the same gender.

ãWe’ve been together 21 years; we’re ready,ä said Vicki Basehart, 65, of Glen Ellen, who was so ready, she and partner Sharon Church, 56, were waiting two hours before the start of business to get a license for their wedding later in the week.

ãI never thought I would live to see the day,ä 91-year-old Don Nicholson said as he and his partner of nearly 49 years, Phillip Johnson, 72, shared their first moments as newlyweds.

More than 30 people were crowded into the hallway outside the County Clerk’s Office when the doors opened at 8 a.m., including more than a half-dozen couples ringed by well-wishers and visibly excited by the prospect of acquiring the rights and recognition newly available to them.

By mid-day, 15 weddings, most of same-sex couples, had been performed, and marriage licenses had been issued to 29 couples, Sonoma County Clerk Bill Rousseau said. County personnel expected to conduct about 20 ceremonies by the close of business, he said.

The shared emotion and common bond of those previously denied the right to wed, save for a brief window in 2008, made for an exceptional camaraderie, even intimacy, among strangers, who applauded, for instance, when the first couple to the altar, Katie and Amy Evans-Reber of Petaluma, exited, beaming, from the chapel room off the clerk’s office.

A friend of theirs, Erin Nelson of Rohnert Park, had arrived with three-dozen long-stemmed roses and stationed herself in the hallway with her infant son, Declan, 9 months, and daughter, Scout, 3, who distributed the pink and red flowers to newly married men and women.

ãWe wanted to be part of it,ä Nelson said, then eyed her children. ãThey don’t understand what’s going on. But they understand love, and that’s what this is all about.ä

Nicholson and Johnson, Oakmont residents, had been registered domestic partners for 14 years when the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way last week for restoration of equal marriage rights in California. And as soon as it was clear licenses would be available beginning Monday, they knew they didn’t want to wait.

ãWe didn’t want to take any chances,ä Nicholson said with a grin.

The official witnesses to their wedding in the courtyard outside the clerk’s office were Hannah Hawkins, 35, and Heidi Hawkins, 32, two young women they’d met a short time earlier in the marriage license line. The Santa Rosa women, who had exchanged their own vows 10 or 15 minutes beforehand, snapped pictures and congratulated the two gents after they sealed their vows with a kiss.

Susan Vachon and Carol Connolly of Santa Rosa, partners for 24 years, got swept up in the day’s emotion after coming to serve as witnesses for dear friends Cate Swan, 60, and Sheryl Bechtel-
heimer, now Swan, 54, of Monte Rio.

After back-to-back weddings, they embraced and then clung to each other in a prolonged group hug.

A shotgun wedding was in store for Michelle Mertz, 36, and Julie Drogin, 44, who was due to give birth Wednesday, though she looked beyond relaxed about it as the pair waited to obtain a license.

Mertz said they gave friends less than 24 hours notice but had at least 50 people planning to attend the western-themed wedding at Goat Rock State Beach on Monday night, where cowboy boots and hats were deemed appropriate attire.

Ed Mason, 69, and Barry Hong, 63, recalled a haunting day three years ago during which they waited unsuccessfully at the county building amid a flurry of legal actions to hear whether there might be an opening for same-sex partners to wed.

But Monday, with Mason back in his smiley-face ãgood luckä tie, they left as legally wedded spouses.

ãIt’s wonderful,ä Hong said. ãWe’ve been waiting a long time.ä

Peter Ehlert and Irma Renteria, who reside in Mexico but wanted to obtain a California marriage certificate while in town for a family reunion, were among just two or three mixed-gender couples availing themselves of civil ceremonies Monday.

But rather than feel slighted in any way by the day’s significance for the gay and lesbian community, Ehlert said it actually ãmade it kind of special for us.ä
ãIt’s great,ä he said. ãIt’s awesome. It’s about time that people got treated like people.ä

In the day’s first wedding, Katie Evans-Reber and Amy Evans-Reber, their 1-year-old son, Cash, wriggling in Amy’s arms, wore flowered wreaths that ringed their heads as they tearfully pledged their love and devotion, promising to care for each other through life’s joys and sorrows.

Janice Wigman and Toni Cataldi, a couple themselves for 30-plus years and cousins of Katie Evans-Reber, 33, flew in from Philadelphia last Wednesday for what they thought would just be Cash’s birthday. Their plane was boarding when airport TVs flashed word that the nation’s Supreme Court had struck down a federal law denying federal benefits to same-sex spouses and then let stand a lower federal court ruling that found California’s ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional.

Watching their younger relative share in the joy of marriage, they referenced her difficult years at Sonoma Valley High, where, as an openly gay student, she endured harassment, name-calling and physical assaults.

Though unable themselves to marry in Pennsylvania, they reveled in the sight of the younger couple exchanging vows, and of Katie ãall aglow.ä

ãTo see that she’s a mom and a bride,ä Wigman said. ãIt’s joyous. It’s just joyous.ä

ãThe town that I grew up in,ä Katie Evans-Reber said later, ãand that was so hard to grow up in, has given me the greatest gift now. I just wish my cousins could get married, too.

ãIt’s a humongous triumph, and it’s a great victory for all of us in California. But every day in Philadelphia, they’re still waiting.ä