Syracuse, NY - In 1988, Monti Willett and Donna Stork, now of Fayetteville, were married by an Episcopal priest in Erie, Pa.
As far as the state of Pennsylvania was concerned, it didn’t count.
A few years later, after they moved to Colorado, they walked into Denver’s City Hall and got a certificate declaring them “companions.” It gave them no extra rights, but it at least acknowledged their relationship, Willett said.
Three years ago, when they were thinking of moving to New Jersey, they had another wedding there. It provided some legal protection, but still no official marriage.
Today, in Syracuse, their long quest for full recognition will end. The couple, who have been together for 42 years, plan to drive to City Hall and pick up a license for a marriage that will be entirely legal in the state of New York.
“It’s something I believe we should have been able to do right along,” said Willett, 64. “As far as I’m concerned, I am as married as I could be; we’ve made our vows to each other. But I do want the legal status.”
Couples will be claiming that status today across the state. Clerks’ offices in Syracuse, Ithaca and a number of other cities and towns will be open for a historic piece of business — granting permission for gay and lesbian couples to enter into marriages equal in the state’s eyes to those of heterosexual couples.
New York will become the sixth and largest state in the nation to recognize those marriages, and many couples are eager to exercise their new rights.
Syracuse City Clerk John Copanas, whose office will be open on a Sunday for the first time in at least two decades, says he expects at least 15 to 20 couples to pick up licenses between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. A few are expected to seek waivers from the usual 24-hour waiting period and actually tie the knot today.
Most will wait, which will give them time to plan weddings many of them have dreamed of for years. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner has so far agreed to officiate three same-sex marriages over the next few months. The Rev. Kathleen Waters, of Plymouth Congregational Church in Syracuse, said she has been approached by more than half a dozen couples asking for her help in arranging their ceremonies.
Four Central New York couples are among 42 couples who have signed up for a group marriage in Niagara Falls on Monday. They include Ken Greenleaf and Richard Baker, of Watertown, who have been together 12 years and have been waiting almost that long for this opportunity.
“It just makes us feel complete now, you know? Marriage is a human right,” said Greenleaf, 45, a school custodian, adding, “We have the right to be as miserable as everyone else.”
The Niagara Falls ceremony is part of a statewide effort to celebrate same-sex marriage as an economic development opportunity. The event is being coordinated by the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. as a way to “reinvent Niagara USA as a premier marriage and honeymoon destination.”
Meanwhile, the state’s I Love NY tourism arm has launched a campaign to draw same-sex couples to New York by promoting wedding and honeymoon packages. Last week, the Syracuse Convention and Visitors Bureau emailed 60 hotels, motels and B&Bs in the area urging them to put together deals to be posted on the ILOVENY.com and visitsyracuse.org websites.
Today has special meaning for Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson, who took office in 2004 at a time when calls for legalizing same-sex marriage were particularly intense. She called then for legalization, and as a form of protest, she ordered that any applications for marriage licenses for same-sex couples be accepted by the city and forwarded to the state — where they were summarily rejected.
It is a stand that earned her dozens of threats from people across the country.
Now, as she is planning to leave office in December, Peterson will perform at least three same-sex weddings in City Hall this week — one involving city Councilwoman Jennifer Dotson.
“It’s very moving, and very exciting for the city,” Peterson said.
In Albany, Mayor Jerry Jennings planned to marry up to 10 same-sex couples at 12:01 a.m. today in the city’s Common Council chambers.
In New York City, 823 couples entered a lottery set up by the city to ensure that clerk’s offices would not be overwhelmed by people wanting to get married. Although the city initially set the limit at 764, all of the 823 couples will be accommodated.
Also in the city, a plan hatched by a few friends to provide a couple of free weddings in Central Park has turned into a major event.
Josh French, a Brooklyn man who is the son of the Rev. Craig French, pastor of University United Methodist Church in Syracuse, told The Post-Standard he and a few friends decided to float their idea on Facebook. Before long they had requests from 75 couples who wanted to be married and a number of companies volunteering to help.
Today, 24 couples will be married in individual ceremonies at the group’s two “pop-up chapels” at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park. They will get free styling and touch-ups and wedding photographs before their ceremonies. After, they will be given a basket of cupcakes and champagne for their own “mini-wedding receptions” in the park.
“I don’t even know how many press people we’re expecting, but we’ve already had questions about where to park the AP satellite truck,” French said.
In a reminder that the marriage equality law won’t in itself end discrimination against gays and lesbians, one Syracuse couple who had considered getting married today changed their minds after thinking over the possible consequences. The couple asked that their names be withheld from this story because they frequently hear discriminatory comments.
Last week, one of them came out of a local store to find a man standing in back of their car, which sports the bumper sticker, “I Support Gay Marriage.” He spat on the ground twice, got in his car and drove away.
The couple decided that getting married today would draw too much attention to them and could hurt the business they run in the city.
Couples arriving at City Hall today will get a far different reception from the local group CNY Pride, whose members plan to greet them with flowers. The couples will also be given blue-and-white “Just Married” sashes by a representative of the New York City-based Empire State Pride Agenda. The group had 1,500 of the sashes made and will be handing them out to couples seeking licenses across the state, spokeswoman Erica Pelletreau said.
“The point of it actually is just to celebrate and do something fun,” she said. “It’s a big deal, not just for the individual couples, but for the broader community.”