“It is incredibly gratifying that the hard work of so many is paying off,” says Elizabeth Schwartz, P.A., the Miami attorney who represented six same-sex couples challenging the state’s ban. “To see the transformational impact that this evolution in marriage equality has had on people’s lives in Florida is nothing short of astounding.”
While states like Massachusetts, California and Washington were among the first to change the laws in their books, other states not usually associated with liberal movements had also joined the fold. Alaska, Idaho and Wyoming all lifted their bans in October 2014, and they were quickly followed by Montana and South Carolina.
On the heels of the Palmetto State’s legal recognition of same-sex marriages, Florida made its mark. Known for its split-down-the-middle politics, Florida remained a wild card throughout much of the movement.
Many believed it would be one of the last states to lift its ban when Attorney General Pam Bondi — who made it very clear she was not bending on the matter — was re-elected. Some couples simply assumed it would be some time before they could exchange their vows, have their marriages recognized or even get a divorce in the Sunshine State.
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But the tide had turned well before Bondi’s election in November. Monroe Chief Circuit Judge Luis Garcia and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel had ruled Florida’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional in July, and U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle of Tallahassee reinforced their rulings by declaring the ban unconstitutional a month later. The rulings were stayed to allow Bondi the chance to appeal them. But when the U.S. Supreme Court denied her request on a 7-2 vote in December, it was just a matter of waiting for the big day to arrive: January 6.
Going to the Courthouse
Early on Monday, January 5th, Judge Zabel at the downtown Miami courthouse quietly lifted the stay on the very ruling she had made in July. And with that, Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello of Coconut Grove became the first same-sex couple to get married in Florida.
Later that evening, couples, along with families, friends and a frenzy of reporters and photographers gathered at courthouses from Palm Beach down to Monroe, waiting patiently for the coveted piece of paper that would make their relationships legally binding. While most were already married either in practice or after filing paperwork in other states, many echoed the same sentiment. It mattered to be recognized legally as couples in their own state. Their home.
At the Broward County Courthouse just after midnight, Shannon Kicklighter and Chris Neill were the first to receive their marriage license, and the room erupted in cheers. A mass wedding followed at 3 a.m., with hundreds in attendance.
“Our community has been fighting for marriage equality for a long time,” says Wilton Manors Mayor Gary Resnick. “We applaud the courts’ decisions to strike down Florida’s ban [on same-sex marriage]. Love is love, and gay and lesbian couples who decide to get married should have the same rights as everyone else.”
The emotional ceremonies are just the tip of the iceberg. Since lifting the ban, the LGBT community and South Florida, in particular, have been in something of a honeymoon phase, and the effects on the local economy are starting to show.
Exactly one month after the first marriage licenses were issued, on February 5th, Lance Bass served as ambassador for the collective wedding ceremony held by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, aptly titled “Love is Love.” Couples from all over the world flew in for the occasion, including Bass and husband Michael Turchin.
With 100 LGBT and straight couples invited to participate in the all-expense-paid nuptials, the event was at once a celebration of equal love and a sneak-peak into what this legal change could mean for the local wedding industry — from caterers and florists all the way to the big-name resorts that serve as reception venues and which host massive wedding-industry conventions.
One year earlier, the historic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables had already launched an elegant advertising campaign geared toward the LGBT market during the 2014 Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, well before legislation on same-sex marriage was anywhere near certain.
After the Honeymoon
“We all need to come together to just celebrate life and love,” says Bass, a Florida native, who was proud of his home state for finally doing the right thing. “[Florida’s politicians] are showing that they’re leaders down here, and hopefully the rest of the states will follow.”
Although finally getting same-sex marriages recognized calls to mind the historic strides made by the African-American civil rights victories half a century ago, many voices within the LGBT community are quick to point out that the fight for equality is far from over.
“Marriage does not solve the problems of everyone in our community. There are still the marginalized folks among us, including our seniors and youth, our transgender community, those living with no protections against discrimination and much more,” says Elizabeth Schwartz. “Marriage sure helps many, but it doesn’t mean justice for all.”
Those who wish to see the LGBT community move forward must continue to band together. While it’s important to celebrate victories, it’s just as crucial to stay focused on the many hurdles left to clear.
“We cannot become complacent as our fight for full equality is ongoing. Fortunately, we enjoy unprecedented support from across the state and nation, and with the momentum the marriage win brings, we’ve got the wind at our backs like never before,” says Schwartz.