First In Line

May 15, 2014 1:06 pm0 commentsViews: 38

gay-marriagepicA Story of Accidental Activists

by Steve Desroches

When Chris McCary and John Sullivan came from their home in Anniston, Alabama, to Provincetown to get married in May 2004, they anticipated the arrival of marriage equality in Massachusetts would be an exciting event, but they thoguht their own ceremony would be a quiet affair.

“It was nothing like we expected,” says Sullivan. “We went up there with the expectation of just doing this for ourselves. It was an affirmation of our love for each other.”

The couple had called Town Hall seeking more information on obtaining a marriage license in that period when all eyes were on Massachusetts. There was a flurry of nervous excitement both because the day had finally arrived and because there was a fear that opponents would find a way to put a stop to it all at the last minute. The town clerk’s office told them many couples from around the country were calling and to expect a long line.

“At best we’ll be couple 101,” says McCary of what they thought would happen that day. “Boy were we wrong!”

A confluence of political fights, an enthusiastic spontaneous celebration, an eager media, an act of civil disobedience, and a confused hotel concierge led to a moment that thrust the private couple into a very public moment that put their marriage on front pages of newspapers around the world. Ten years later the couple still responds with a chuckle and a sense of disbelief as to how their wedding day played out back when saying “I do” made them pivotal figures in the history of the LGBT equality movement.

McCary and Sullivan arrived in Boston on May 16, 2004, telling no one back home in Alabama about their plans to marry. While checking into their hotel, they told the concierge their intentions to travel to Provincetown to get married. He told them it was about a five-hour drive and, being unfamiliar with the region, they believed him.

“Which is why we got there at five bloody thirty in the morning,” says Sullivan.

“He was thinking it would be a heavy traffic day,” says McCary of the concierge’s advice. “When we arrived it looked like Ptown was asleep. It was!”

The couple ended up being the first in line and the first to exit the Town Hall marriage license in hand. A large scrum of reporters and over 1,000 people had gathered to celebrate.  Adding to the significance, the couple was from out of state. Then Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had vowed to prevent the commonwealth from becoming the “Las Vegas” of gay marriage, with couples coming from all over the country to marry, and then returning to their home states to file a tidal wave of expected lawsuits. Romney dusted off an old statute that became known popularly as “The 1913 Law.” The law, which was repealed in 2008, had stated if a couple’s home state would not recognize the marriage as legal then they would be denied a marriage license here. The law was initially passed to prevent interracial couples from coming to Massachusetts, where such marriages were legal. Romney’s order to the state’s town clerks to enforce the forgotten law was supported by Democratic Attorney General Tom Reilly, also a marriage equality opponent.  However, Provincetown Town Clerk Doug Johnstone was the first to say that marriage licenses would be given to all couples regardless of residency, with the full support of the board of selectmen.

“What next? Is Provincetown going to start marrying 10-year-olds in violation of the law…. Are they going to refuse to enforce the drug laws? Will they ignore the gun laws, too?” asked Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom at the time.

While 12 other towns would follow suit, the media’s attention was on Provincetown, and McCary and Sullivan were exactly who the press was looking for to illustrate this defiant act.  Walking down the steps of Town Hall to cheers and applause from the crowd, cameras and microphones were thrust at the couple. Sullivan remembers the moment as overwhelming, describing himself as “Joe Private Citizen.”

“Chris leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘You know this isn’t about us anymore so calm down,’” remembers Sullivan. He and McCary walked through the crowd hand in hand, showered with flower petals and pats on the back.

Eager to see if Governor Romney would try to halt the marriage, several media members offered to drive the two down to the district court house in Orleans to get a waiver on the three-day waiting period inherent in Massachusetts’ marriage licenses.

“That was the unpleasant surprise, that we’d spend the day with the press,” says Sullivan.

The couple ran to the public bathrooms next to the Chamber of Commerce to change into suits and then went to Joan Drysdale’s house on Court Street where the justice of the peace, choking back tears herself, married them by the little frog pond in the corner of the yard. The intimate, emotional moment was shared with about 20 reporters with cameras clicking and tape recorders rolling.

Their photo was in newspapers the world over, including the Netherlands, Colombia, and Portugal. A friend’s son called while on tour with a ballet company to say the two were on the cover of the Tokyo Sun. They were also in newspapers throughout the United States, including front pages of the major publications in Alabama, as well as the New York Times, the Boston Globe and People magazine. For several days after, as they walked through the streets of Boston, folks would yell out, “Alabama!” and wave, says McCary.

They were also on the front page of their hometown newspaper The Anniston Star, in a town where they had told no one of their upcoming marriage. While McCary says things have improved there, opposition to LGBT rights is still strong in Alabama. And back in 2006, 81 percent of the voters supported a state constitutional ban on marriage equality.  However, upon their arrival home, the newly married couple was met with a surprising amount of support. Neighbors left wedding gifts on their front steps.  A woman they described as a “typical Alabama redneck” with “curlers in her hair” and wearing slippers at the grocery store came over to them, looked around to see if anyone was watching, and then smiled and said, “Congratulations.”

“No one said a foul word to us,” says McCary.

The state and local media did present some critical voices, and members of their own families disapproved, including Sullivan’s sister who has not spoken to him since, as well as his mother, who asked them about five years ago if they couldn’t just be friends as she was worried she wouldn’t see them in the hereafter.

Things have changed nationwide of course with last year’s Supreme Court decisions in favor of marriage equality and public opinion is changing fast. Even in Alabama, Patricia Todd was elected the first openly gay legislator in the state in 2006, and the city of Montgomery has an anti-discrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation.  And life for McCary and Sullivan has changed as well. The still happily married couple bought a farm near the Alabama-Georgia state line in 2010, where Confederate flags fly in a “lily white” part of the state.

“This is as Bible Belt as you can get,” says McCary.  “But we get left alone out here.”

But there is still a long way to go. Despite filing joint federal taxes this year for the first time, they still have to file separately in Alabama where McCary works as a lawyer, and in Georgia where Sullivan works as a nurse.

The couple is returning to Provincetown this weekend to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary.  There are a variety of events planned to celebrate this historic milestone, including concerts and parties. Town Hall is festooned with rainbow-colored bunting and multi-colored Christmas lights on the trees, and in the hallway is a display of photos and artifacts from that special day, including photos of McCary and Sullivan filing for their marriage license, taking part in an accidental moment in history.