Wedding for same-sex Raleigh couple, after a year in the making
In the 24 hours leading up to Chris Creech and Chad Biggs’ wedding last weekend, there was a minor car crash, two cancellations by car services hired for the occasion, cats-and-dogs rain that pushed the garden ceremony indoors, and a lingering question of whether the maid of honor would be allowed by her mother to participate.
To the couple and their 150 elegantly attired guests, the fact that the wedding came off flawlessly was not what made it remarkable. What made the wedding remarkable was the fact that, despite the hiccups, this public promise by two people to walk side-by-side for the rest of their lives, each asking the other to be his beloved husband, could be so undramatic.
In the year that has passed since a federal judge found North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, at least 2,939 couples of the same gender have been joined in matrimony in six of the most populous counties in the state. Statewide, the total may be much higher, but North Carolina does not track the number of licenses issued to same-sex couples, and most counties have an incomplete count because applicants are not required to indicate gender on the form.
Same-sex marriage remains a divisive issue in the state; the legislature approved a provision this year allowing magistrates to refuse to perform the ceremonies and, just before the end of the session in September, lawmakers considered making it illegal for local governments to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Where there are anti-discrimination ordinances, businesses that refuse to provide services – such as baking cakes, arranging flowers or taking photographs – to customers because they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender can face lawsuits. Without such ordinances, those who feel they have been discriminated against have little recourse.
Advocates for marriage equality continue to battle with people who hold that marriage should only exist between a man and a woman. Meanwhile, betrothed same-sex couples are planning the weddings of which they once dared not dream, and professionals in the $1.6 billion wedding industry in the state are deciding whether to accept their money.
“We had been waiting for this opportunity for years,” said Rochelle Johnson, who with her husband, Nick, owns The Cookery, an event space with a commercial kitchen-for-rent in Durham. A former graphic artist and marketing specialist who now spends much of her time working with wedding planners, caterers and others in the wedding industry, Johnson said she has many LGBT friends and contacts. She watched along with them last year as relevant cases made their way through federal courts.
When it appeared that a final legal linchpin might be pulled by judges considering cases in two districts, hopeful couples gathered in courthouses in Raleigh, Greensboro, Asheville and elsewhere so they could be among the first to wed. Some waited for days.
The decision finally came shortly after 5 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 10. Most courthouses across the state had closed for the weekend, but in Wake County, Register of Deeds Laura Riddick kept her office open until 9 p.m. to issue licenses, and a magistrate and ministers married 51 couples that night.
Creech and Biggs, who both worked at the Wake County Sheriff’s Office at the time, were first. But while the vows they took before Chief Magistrate Judge Dexter Williams made official their eight-year union, the brief ceremony left the jubilant couple wishing more of their friends and family members could have been there to share it.
So they did what countless others have done: They followed their courthouse nuptials with a more elaborate celebration with as many of their loved ones as they could afford to feed.
“The first one was for us,” Biggs said a week before the formal wedding. “This one is to thank all our friends and family for their support and love.”
Creech, 47, handles information technology for the Wake County Sheriff’s Office. Biggs, 37, was a courthouse deputy with the department until he and Creech were married and he could be added to Creech’s insurance plan. That gave Biggs the freedom to resign from the sheriff’s office and make a full-time job of his side job as a wedding planner. Naturally, Biggs planned his and Creech’s wedding.
While the pair saved as much as they could to pay for their event, it wasn’t enough for the ceremony they had envisioned: flute and harp players in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, followed by a Gatsby-esque reception where they arrived by limo for a sit-down dinner, an open bar, a DJ and emcee, a towering cake, white leather and black sequin decor, champagne favors for the guests, and a hothouse worth of white hydrangeas and 18 attendants.
Happily for them, as a result of their sudden celebrity, Biggs and Creech were inundated with offers from vendors who wanted to provide services for free or at a discount, starting with Johnson at The Cookery.
“We just wanted to do something that showed our support,” Johnson said.
Churches more accepting
Biggs has handled hundreds of events for other couples, has a cadre of reliable professionals to fulfill the wishes of brides and grooms. With the increased popularity of marriage equality, he has noted which of those vendors are interested in working with same-sex couples.
Biggs said he was surprised when a local photographer to whom he has referred tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of wedding business in the past declined to photograph his wedding.
“She said she just didn’t shoot those kinds of weddings,” Biggs said. Others followed suit.
“It was a wake-up call. Some of the people I thought were my friends, they made it clear they would not support me.”
To make it easier for couples to find same-sex-friendly vendors, several websites, including theknot.com and southernbrideandgroom.com, carry ads or lists of caterers, musicians, officiants, venue operators and other providers.
Included are pastors and churches known to welcome LGBT couples who want more than the civil ceremony a willing magistrate can provide.
One of those vendors is Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, which stopped doing all weddings after the passage of Amendment One, which defined marriage in North Carolina as between one man and one woman. The church resumed marriage ceremonies after the law changed last fall. Nancy E. Petty, who is Pullen’s senior pastor, married her longtime partner, Karla Oakley, at Pullen in May.
“We marry anybody who asks us now,” said Petty, noting that traditional and same-sex couples all go through the same process. That involves at least three meetings where she talks with the couple about their relationship, the marriage commitment and their expectations and hopes.
“I don’t ask them specifically about their conversations around religion or money or children, but they have to reassure me that they have had those conversations, they have worked through them, and if there is a conflict around any of those, then we talk about it.”
Different denominations and individual churches are still grappling with the question of same-sex marriage. In September, the leadership of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh voted to allow the ceremonies, while other churches have made compromises. The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, for instance, allows priests to bless same-gender marriages and officiate at civil ceremonies for the couples.
Seeing that same-sex couples sometimes face rejection as they plan weddings, Robyn Mangrum, publisher of Weddings magazine based in Holly Springs, began last year to explore whether the local LBGT community would welcome an annual publication whose advertising base wants their business. She plans to launch Commit next spring, with the hope of merging it into Weddings in a few years.
“We didn’t want to suggest that somehow their weddings were completely different,” said Mangrum, who publishes 20,000 copies of Weddings’ annual reference guide. “Our goal was more to have a safe place for that community, where people would be excited to work with them. There are people in the industry who aren’t friendly toward this new law, and it can be really devastating to a couple to walk in and be turned down down.”
No basis for lawsuits
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, which led the campaign to pass Amendment One in 2012, said business operators have the right to refuse to provide a service that puts them at odds with their religious or moral convictions. Fitzgerald points to a poll of 600 registered North Carolina voters by the conservative Civitas Institute in June that found 64 percent of respondents supported the now-overturned amendment.
For those people, she said, opposition to same-sex marriage “is not just a matter of their personal opinion. It’s a matter of their belief in God, who created the universe and, I believe, created men and women to have an exclusive sexual intimacy. It’s a matter of biblical orthodoxy.”
In a free market, Fitzgerald said, same-sex couples who are turned down by a vendor who doesn’t want to work with them have the option of finding another vendor who does.
With no nationwide or statewide ban on discrimination against LGBT people, and with few local anti-discrimination ordinances in place, couples who are refused service based on their sexual orientation have no basis for lawsuits like those that have been filed in other states. Instead, some use word of mouth or online forums and review sites to complain about their experiences.
Fitzgerald knows of several businesses, she said, “that have had ugly and discriminatory reviews written about them” on such sites.
Biggs and Creech declined to publicly identify vendors who refused to work with the couple or became unavailable when they learned the service requested was for a gay wedding. Instead, Biggs and Creech focused on the generosity and professionalism of the vendors who were part of their celebration.
It was, they said, a perfect wedding, marrying Biggs’ skills as a wedding planner with Creech’s romantic sensibilities.
“It was gorgeous,” Creech said when it was over. “To have some of your closest friends and family standing up there with you, sharing that experience with all the people you care about, your family and your friends, that’s what it’s all about.”
About the numbers
The office of the Register of Deeds issues marriage licenses in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties, using an application form created by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Checking gender boxes on the form is optional.
Most counties have not tracked licenses issued to same-sex vs. opposite-sex couples. The News & Observer asked several of the more populous counties to count licenses issued from Oct. 10, 2014 through late September to couples who indicated they were of the same gender. Here are those results:
Wake: 7,076 licenses issued, at least 664 to same-sex couples
Durham: 2,361 licenses issued, at least 271 to same-sex couples
Buncombe: 3,200 licenses issued, at least 649 to same-sex couples
Guilford: 3,722 licenses issued, at least 421 to same-sex couples
Mecklenburg: 6,490 licenses issued, at least 716 to same-sex couples
Forsyth: 2,265 licenses issued, at least 218 to same sex couples
Across the state, 68,801 couples were married in 2014, an increase of 4,297 from 2013, according to DHHS. Most of the increase – 3,455 additional marriages – occurred in the last three months of the year, when same-sex marriage had become legal.
Earlier this year, the state legislature approved a provision allowing magistrates to opt out of performing marriages for same-sex couples based on religious or moral objections.
The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts reports that 32 magistrates across 19 counties have recused themselves from performing civil marriages. Because all four of the magistrates in McDowell County have recused themselves, each week magistrates from neighboring Rutherford County travel to McDowell to perform marriages.