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Marriage Equality Week 2004: My story

by Blanchard “Radar” Williams

Freedom to Marry Day, Feb. 12, 2004, was cold, wet and dreary. I spent that Thursday morning on the phone with my father trying to explain that legal recognition for my partner Don and me was not forcing him to accept something he disagreed with, but allowing us to protect ourselves. It had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with treating people with equality under the law. This is a debate we still have today.

After the phone call, Don and I gathered with four couples from the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement (SCGLPM) and an array of supporters at the Richland County Courthouse in downtown Columbia. We were nervous and scared, with no idea what to expect. As we waited at the front doors, we became aware that several police officers had gathered. We didn’t know what to think. We were there to make a statement, not a scene!

During our work as board members with SCGLPM, we had learned about Freedom to Marry Day, a day recognized by gay and lesbian civil rights groups across the nation to join together and make a coordinated stand for marriage equality. We knew it was only a matter of time before the radical national conservative push to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples would reach our state. As SCGLPM began talking about how we might put a South Carolina face on marriage equality, Don and I began talking about a commitment ceremony of our own, a public recognition of our eight-year relationship.

SCGLPM planned a week of events, calling it Marriage Equality Week. The week would include various community events as well as a town hall meeting to educate and a public attempt by couples to register for marriage licenses-to show that there are gay and lesbian couples in South Carolina, and that we want to be treated as equals. Don and I had also decided to end the week of public action with our own private commitment ceremony.

As stories from San Francisco and Massachusetts were making national headlines, local TV and newspaper reporters had become hungry for South Carolina stories. On Feb. 12, we were surrounded by a crowd of reporters. Don and I, hand-in-hand, started climbing the stairs to the second floor of the Richland County Courthouse, intending to apply for a marriage license. Each step was a little easier as we realized we were also surrounded by our friends and supporters. However my sense of ease left when I reached the top and saw a line of police officers stretching down the hallway to the marriage license office. Slowly, I mustered up some courage and approached the nearest officer. I told him, “We’re not here to cause any problems.” He responded, “I know, we’re here to protect you.” I was shocked! It was then I realized, I had been thinking it was ‘us against them’ when all along ‘them’ was already with us.

The rest of the marriage license process was somewhat of a blur. We filled out our forms and received the expected “sorry, the law won’t allow us to give you licenses,” but the judge did add, that if it was up to her, she would give us our licenses right then and there. This was exciting news. Many people were already on our side. We only had to get the right people to change the laws. Friday morning I had the day off from work to prepare for the commitment ceremony on Saturday. I called in to work and talked with my supervisor. He told me that the cat was out of the bag on what I was planning that weekend. It didn’t surprise me because of the huge press coverage our registration attempt had received, but what he told me next did. “Some of your coworkers are very angry.”

My heart stopped. My breath caught in my throat. I wasn’t at all embarrassed of being gay or of my life partner, but my mind began to race with extreme thoughts. Who was angry at me? Would I still be able to go to work? Would I need to change desks or always walk with someone to my car? Would someone who I thought was my friend now hate me? I started to stutter, “I didn’t mean to upset anyone. Who is angry at me, I can try and talk to them.” But then my boss finished. “A few of your coworkers are angry that you didn’t invite them to your wedding.” I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say. Once again I was thinking there was no support from the world around me, and once again I was surprised

Don’s longtime friend and his wife took part in the ceremony with us. When we had met them for dinner to plan the ceremony, I was impressed by their questions. They were more than happy to do whatever they could.

When I returned to work on Monday and finished showing off the ring, I was confronted by the one coworker I was the most anxious about. The sweetest lady in my group was a grandmother in her mid-sixties. I just knew she would take issue with my being gay. I managed to avoid her most of the day until she cornered me at my desk. She pulled out a newspaper and proceeded to show me a picture of her granddaughter, a lesbian, standing outside of a Chicago courthouse trying to apply for a marriage license. My co-worker went on to tell me how proud of her granddaughter she was and how terrible it was this action was needed, just to treat people fairly. And then she congratulated me on the commitment ceremony!

If these events have taught me anything, it’s that there is more love and common sense in the world than I sometimes think. The people with extreme views are the ones who speak out. The quiet ones will surprise you. Never assume someone will not support you, especially if you don’t have the courage to ask for it.

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