For NC gays and their supporters, from pain to extravagant joy

Jimmy Creech lost his credentials in the United Methodist Church after marrying James Raymer, left, and Larry Ellis in 1999.
Jimmy Creech lost his credentials in the United Methodist Church after marrying James Raymer, left, and Larry Ellis in 1999. AP

Like everyone, I wasn’t prepared for the U.S. Supreme Court’s history-making announcement that opened the door to marriage equality in North Carolina. I expected the court to make a positive ruling, but not before June.

In May, Joni and Gina invited me to officiate at their wedding ceremony on Oct. 18. Their plan was to be legally married in the District of Columbia on the 17th and have a wedding ceremony the next day with their families and friends. While they badly wanted to be legally married in their home state, waiting until June 2015 was just too long.

When the Supreme Court’s decision made their legal marriage in North Carolina a possibility, the three of us were excited that they might not have to wait. However, because the United Methodist Church had taken my credentials of ordination in 1999, someone else would have to conduct the ceremony on the 18th for it to be legal.

Last week, I returned from an errand to find a message on our answering machine. Ken and Steve, and Michael and Mike, had called to ask whether I would conduct a double wedding for them Nov. 15, should a federal judge declare North Carolina’s ban on same-gender marriage unconstitutional. I’ve known both couples for more than 20 years. Ken and Steve have been together 28 years and Michael and Mike, more than 12. I couldn’t say no to them, and I really wanted to officiate at Joni and Gina’s wedding. But I didn’t have the credentials.

It was deeply painful for many reasons when my credentials were taken away. Losing the ability to celebrate weddings with loving couples was especially painful.

With marriage equality about to become a reality in North Carolina, I agonized about what to do. I knew I could not regain my credentials from the United Methodist Church, but I was able to get them from the American Marriage Ministries, a nondenominational interfaith church.

Last Friday, Chris and I were dressed to go to Durham to see “The Phantom of the Opera,” with our daughter, Natalia. We’d waited all day, anticipating an announcement regarding marriage equality in North Carolina. We’d been waiting all week for the announcement, which then seemed wouldn’t come until the following week. Then the news broke a little before 6 p.m. that U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn had declared North Carolina’s constitutional marriage amendment, denying same-gender couples the right to marry, unconstitutional.

When the amendment passed in 2012, the pain was excruciating. With the news of Cogburn’s decision, the joy was extravagant! Dressed for the opera, we went down to the Wake County Justice Center where marriage licenses were being issued to same-gender couples. “Phantom” would have to wait.

As we approached, we found Ken and Steve walking just ahead of us. They had been preparing to grill hamburgers when they heard the news. Even though they planned a November wedding and had plenty of time to get their license, they couldn’t wait. The day was too historic not to be part of.

They immediately asked whether I’d officiate their wedding as soon as they got their license. I enthusiastically agreed.

And so it happened: On the steps of the Wake County Justice Center, Ken and Steve spoke vows of love and fidelity to each other, and I pronounced them married! This was the first legal marriage I’ve been able to do since 1999.

Now, I look forward to officiating at the marriage of Joni and Gina on Saturday.

I’ve never doubted marriage equality would come to North Carolina, as it will eventually to all 50 states. I just didn’t expect it to come so swiftly and in such a dramatically surprising way. It was ironic, with all the religion-based arguments in support of the marriage amendment, that the case upon which Cogburn’s decision was based was a lawsuit brought by the United Church of Christ and other clergy from around the state.

Not only did the amendment deny the right of same-gender couples to marry in North Carolina and legal recognition to couples married in other states, the amendment made conducting same-gender marriages a punishable illegal act for clergy.

Beyond being history-making, the advent of marriage equality in North Carolina inaugurates a reality of stability, security and protection for same-gender couples previously unknown on a personal level.

Last Friday, I saw same-gender couples leaving the Justice Center, walking toward the heart of Raleigh holding hands with a new-found sense of freedom, equality and dignity. Bigotry dies hard, and much more work is necessary to achieve full legal equality and social acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. A big step was taken in North Carolina toward its ultimate demise on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. We can celebrate!

Jimmy Creech, author of “Adam’s Gift: a Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays,” lives in Raleigh.