It was a day unlike any other and one that I’ll never forget — the first of 16 days when the freedom to marry was extended legally to all Utah couples.
It was the Friday before Christmas. Like many others, I’m sure, I was surprised. I had just returned from a celebratory holiday lunch. When I turned on my desktop computer screen, the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby was everywhere. And in that moment, I forwarded it to my staff with a simple exclamation, “Wow!”
Before that day my reluctance to publicly embrace marriage equality had everything to do with my constitutional responsibilities. I am sworn to uphold the laws of Utah; the laws of Utah, until Dec. 20, constitutionally prohibited marriage for same-sex couples. While I have long been a champion of equality, marriage for so many of our family members, friends and neighbors seemed far out of reach. But here it was, in a 53-page decision declaring that the state’s 2004 ban against marriage between two loving gay or lesbian Utahns violated the federal rights of these couples under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
It was time to get down to the Salt Lake County Clerk office. Those four hours, before the office closed and marriages could be performed, were a highlight of my years of public service. It was thrilling. And more than anything, I don’t think I stopped crying for four straight hours.
How could anyone not? There were hundreds of people in the hallways, or rushing up the sidewalks, and filling the main office — all of us uncertain how long this moment would last. I can’t remember ever encountering so much joy and so much love in one crowded, wonderfully chaotic space. And not just among the couples themselves, but shared, in many cases, by their children, parents or siblings, all of whom dropped everything to be there for these sudden, unexpected marriages.
In a way, there was something very traditional about these wedding parties. The people who really mattered to these couples, who would move heaven and earth to be there for their marriages, were witnesses to this explosion of joy. It was a spontaneous outbreak of love. I’ll never forget it.
So here we are today. Before the state was granted its stay on Judge Shelby’s decision, 1,362 Utah couples married. I know people who changed their minds on marriage equality over those 16 days of pictures, celebrations and announcements.
Part of what is happening in Utah is what’s happening across the country. Gay and lesbian Utahns and Americans no longer live separate lives. We know them. They’re members of our family, they coach our kids in little league, or work in the cubicle next to us every day.
What is happening here in Utah is what’s happening everywhere else. As each of us comes to know these fellow citizens, it brings a deeper reflection on how there are so many more similarities than differences among us. And if that is the case, then why would we deny them the protections and responsibilities that only flow from marriage?
We don’t know, of course, what will happen with this case as it moves through the appeals process and ultimately, most probably, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Predicting the outcome is impossible and foolhardy. But here’s what I do know:
Ralph Becker is mayor of Salt Lake City and a member of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry.