Smithfield Herald

Gay couples marry in Johnston

Dennis Arthur, left, and Dennis Massey, both of Princeton, exchange wedding vows Monday, becoming the first same-sex couple to wed in Johnston County.
Dennis Arthur, left, and Dennis Massey, both of Princeton, exchange wedding vows Monday, becoming the first same-sex couple to wed in Johnston County.

Dennis Massey and Dennis Arthur didn’t make a big fuss about their nuptials.

As partners for nearly four decades, the two men said getting married wouldn’t fundamentally change their relationship.

Instead, Massey, a hairdresser, and Arthur, who is retired, said they wanted to get married so the state would have to legally recognize their union. They saw no need to make a big deal out of that.

“It ain’t nothing new,” said Massey, 60. “Like I said, we’ve been together 37 years. This just affords me rights. I pay taxes like everybody else. I want to be recognized like everybody else.”

Dressed in jeans and T-shirts, the Princeton men on Monday became the first same-sex couple to marry in Johnston County. They said they were glad to have the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples.

“We own property; that could be a problem if one of us were to die,” Arthur said before the ceremony. “With marriage, there’s no legal problem.”

Monday was the first day same-sex couples could marry in Johnston County. Massey and Arthur came to the courthouse in Smithfield around 1 p.m. because they wanted to avoid the morning rush.

But no such rush occurred.

While couples, witnesses and the media crowded the Wake County Courthouse on Oct. 10 awaiting a ruling on gay marriage, the scene in Johnston County was much quieter.

In Johnston on that Friday, it was business as usual in the Register of Deeds office, which issues marriage licences. A few heterosexual couples obtained licenses, and the office recorded property deeds. The staff fielded only a handful of calls from gay couples wanting to know when they could wed.

The office stops issuing marriage licenses at 4:30 p.m. and closed on Oct. 10 before a federal judge’s ruling cleared the way for gay weddings in North Carolina.

On Monday, the Register of Deeds office was ready to accommodate the change in law. Lines once reserved for “bride” and “groom” now said “applicant 1” and “applicant 2.” By midday, the county’s online marriage application also reflected the changes.

“My employees eagerly await anybody who comes through the door,” said Johnston Registrar of Deeds Craig Olive. “I’m just trying to be accommodating to all of the public, and my staff will be too.”

A pleasant surprise

The Johnston County Register of Deeds office issues about 1,000 marriage licenses a year, or anywhere from three to seven licenses a day, Olive said. Between Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon of this past week, his office issued 22 marriage licenses, seven of which were for same-sex couples.

In 2012, 73 percent of Johnstonians who voted favored the amendment banning gay marriage. Just eight of North Carolina’s 100 counties opposed the ban.

Those statistics worried Willie Faircloth and Darren Sparkman. The two men, both of Smithfield, were excited to get married but worried about the reception they would get at the courthouse.

They were pleasantly surprised.

“We didn’t know, but everybody was wonderful,” said Faircloth, 51. “That made it better.”

“Made me proud to live in Johnston County,” added Sparkman, 42.

Once they were married, the couple of 12 years took photos with their witnesses in front of the courthouse. They couldn’t believe they were legally married.

“It’s almost unbelievable,” Faircloth said.

Whirlwind week

Gay marriage became legal in North Carolina just after 5:30 p.m. Oct. 10, when Judge Max Cogburn issued a ruling deeming the state’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. Many gay couples were married that night.

That capped off a whirlwind week that started Oct. 6, when the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear appeals of lower-court decisions that struck down gay-marriage bans in five states. One of these states was Virginia.

Months ago, lawyers arguing against North Carolina’s constitutional block on gay marriage said they saw no legal distinction between Virginia’s ban and North Carolina’s ban. Any decision in Virginia affects North Carolina because the states are in the same U.S. appeals court circuit.

The Supreme Court’s inaction opened the possibility for gay marriage to happen immediately in some states and for bans to be overturned in others.

Making it official

Massey and Arthur were nonchalant as they filled out their marriage application. They insisted that after 37 years together, this was no big deal.

“You won’t get any fanfare story out of us,” Arthur said. Massey said he’d probably go home after the ceremony and feed the chickens.

After getting their marriage license, the two men walked over to the magistrate’s office, and it was time to wed. The magistrate asked them if there was anything they wanted to say to each other.

“No,” Massey said. “We’ve said it all.”

But even so, right after they were pronounced “married,” Massey got red in the face, and he began to cry.