Everyone was ready. A dozen couples had waited all day in a concourse of the Wake County Justice Center for the announcement – and years longer for this day to come.
Just when it seemed that no ruling would be coming Friday and that marriage would have to wait another weekend, a judge’s order and a flurry of phone calls brought it back within reach.
So there, just after half past five, stood Chad Biggs and Chris Creech, both employees of the county sheriff. Camera crews’ yellow spotlights shone hot on their faces, and Chief Magistrate Dexter Williams, draped in his robes, studied them with the hint of a smile.
“I’m here to share my life with this man and to raise my daughter, who’s 12 years old,” said Biggs, 35, a tall man who works most days as a courthouse deputy and plans weddings on the side.
Was there any reason, Williams inquired, that they could not be wed?
“There is no legal reason,” Biggs said, “we cannot be wed today.”
The magistrate considered this – and concluded that, by North Carolina’s laws, there was no reason these two men could not make official their bond of eight years. At this a young woman in the crowd burst into tears.
Biggs and Creech looked to the brushed tungsten rings that they’ve worn for years anyway, then recited the magistrate’s words: “I give you this ring as a token and pledge of my constant faith and abiding love.”
Then the tears really came, even from a few of the cameramen pressing up against the fabric barrier. The ceremony had gone out live on local evening newscasts, and the congratulations were quickly rising to a flood.
“We feel like we are part of everyone else now,” Creech, 46, said.
As he spoke, some of the people who had left an hour earlier in frustration returned to the courthouse. Register of Deeds Laura Riddick would keep the building open until 9 p.m., she said – and many more were set to follow Creech and Biggs, the first same-sex couple in Wake County, and perhaps North Carolina.
The license was issued at 5:44 p.m., according to county officials. Then it was time to cut the cake: two tiers, white frosting, with carrot cake on top and strawberry on the bottom layer.
A mood of anticipation took hold early in the day at the Wake justice center. By noon, some 50 people had gathered in the broad concourse of the downtown courthouse, trading waves of news and rumors.
“It’s almost surreal,” said Tonya Edge, 47, early in the afternoon, as she waited for word with her partner, Amy Litton, 43.
They’d met 13 years ago on a blind date to Frazier’s, an old Hillsborough Street establishment.
Both women committed to one another “many years ago,” Edge said. But the idea that their marriage could be legally recognized, she continued, felt “like you’ve been in a coma for 30 years, and you just woke up.”
It felt, in other words, like they were ready to enter a new era.
“We’ve watched things open up – we’ve kind of lived it, I think,” Tonya marveled.
They’ll now share Tonya’s last name. “Amy Edge – doesn’t that sound like a rock star name?” Litton asked.
Earlier in the day, Biggs circled the building in his deputy’s uniform, bottle of Coke in hand. He had the day off, but he figured he ought to bring some calm to the courthouse, where he patrols most workdays.
“The way I live my life is saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Good morning,’ ” he explained.
He has been in law enforcement for about a decade, working his way up from the small town of Weldon, through Halifax County and the town of Cary, and onto Wake County in 2010.
Over those years, he turned his cheek to many barbs, he acknowledged – but he also remembers how his father defended him in their rural community. He revels now in the support of his colleagues.
“I was able to treat people the way I wanted to be treated,” Biggs said.
“People like this make it easy to stand up,” he added, looking at the long line of couples in the courthouse, the clergy in their multicolored sashes, and his friends in uniform.
A sweet reward
“I would say we’ve been waiting for five years,” said Trish Philbrook, 53, sitting in the back row of a second-floor courtroom.
“I’m very nervous – this is my first marriage,” said her partner, Vicki Britt, also 53, her curly hair kept short and her dark blazer smartly cut.
Their relationship, begun in midlife, was the sweet reward for a long journey – Philbrook’s sexuality evolved later in life, after a marriage and children. Britt, for her part, was beaten and forced from a job for her sexuality in the 1970s, and lived for decades in the “man’s world” of construction.
“That’s part of why I am who I am today,” said Britt, who became a Wake County sheriff’s deputy just eight years ago.
They have three children between them, and a grandchild – “the light of our lives” – who just turned 1.
“He will not know any different,” Britt said. “He won’t know that any of this was controversial.”
“It will be a different world,” said Philbrook, an administrative assistant for the Wake County Public School System.
Just then a uniformed officer opened the room’s double doors. A judge’s order was imminent, he said – and the couples could line up with family and friends. The room went silent, stunned.
In their lifetime?
That first announcement was a false alarm, as the courthouse crowd slowly learned. By the late afternoon, the frustration began to return.
“If it doesn’t happen, then how much longer is it going to go after today?” Creech asked as he stood in line.
He’s a native of Raleigh, a former police officer for Apex and Garner’s former EMS chief, now a technology manager for the sheriff.
His relationship with Biggs seemed practically bound for marriage, right from their first date at Raleigh’s Mellow Mushroom, with Biggs’ 12-year-old daughter and Creech’s two foster sons in tow.
“Everything revolved around the kids,” Creech said.
Within two years they’d bought a house, and then they were renovating it, even building a new garage – “and when I say we built it, we built it,” Creech insisted.
But for everything they built, they didn’t expect to see their relationship recognized.
“Back then, we couldn’t really see what this day would be,” Creech said. “We didn’t know if it would come during our lifetime or not.”
It did Friday, when they said “I do,” and a whole community watched them wed. The wait wasn’t much longer for those who followed either. Philbrook and Britt were married soon after, as were Edge and Litton.