Although they thought they were racing against the clock, the brides traveled by Port Authority bus from the Allegheny County Courthouse to the district court in Squirrel Hill, where, on the afternoon of May 21, 2014, they became, by all accounts, the first same-sex couple to wed in Pennsylvania.
So began my six-week marathon officiating civil wedding ceremonies for lesbian and gay couples. A total of 37 same-sex couples exchanged vows in my courtroom from May 21 to July 3, when I left for a vacation that — unlike these weddings — was planned months in advance.
There was a sense of urgency to that first wedding, as some people feared an appeal — and an immediate stay — of U.S. District Judge John E. Jones’ ruling striking down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage. The ruling was less than 24 hours old when that first couple, with the help of a volunteer attorney from the Allegheny County Bar Association’s LGBT Rights Committee, secured a judicial waiver of Pennsylvania’s three-day waiting period to wed. With license in hand, they phoned the district court and, confirming my availability, boarded the 61D to Squirrel Hill. An entourage of reporters and photographers unceremoniously beat the women to their destination.
The “brides on the bus,” as my mother later christened them, made the 6 o’clock news and scored an above-the-fold photograph on the front page of the Post-Gazette. By the end of the day, Gov. Tom Corbett announced there would be no appeal of Judge Jones’ decision and no effort by the commonwealth to stop same-sex weddings. Thus, Pennsylvania became the 19th state to allow such unions and the last of the northeastern states to do so.
Pennsylvania remains, however, the only “marriage equality” state that lacks a statewide non-discrimination law, creating the conundrum that, in most counties of the commonwealth, an LGBT Pennsylvanian could be married today but legally fired, evicted or denied a public accommodation for doing so.
As news of Judge Jones’ ruling spread, the ringing phone at the district court in Squirrel Hill became a prelude to wedding bells for dozens of same-sex couples. June is, of course, a big month for weddings. More than a dozen opposite-sex weddings were already on the court’s calendar — sandwiched between landlord-tenant disputes, civil cases and traffic hearings — before the ruling suddenly expanded the pool of potential brides and grooms.
In scheduling a wedding, it is my secretary’s custom to enter on the calendar just the name of the person calling to schedule it. In the aftermath of Judge Jones’ decision, my staff and I were sometimes in the dark as to whether the person who scheduled the ceremony would be marrying a man or a woman. In other cases, a caller let it be known at the time of scheduling that he or she would be marrying a partner of the same sex. It was a disclosure, as my secretary described it, that some callers made with jubilation, others with trepidation.
Allegheny County is alone among southwestern Pennsylvania counties in having a local ordinance outlawing discrimination based on LGBT status. Even so, one gay groom who lives and works in Allegheny County told me he planned to remove his new wedding ring while on the job. He said his long-time employer, the owner of a small business, knows the employee is gay and lives with a man but has voiced religious objections to same-sex marriage. The groom very much wanted to marry his long-time partner but did not want to make waves at work.
In the hours after Judge Jones’ ruling, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald heralded the news and assured LGBT couples that the county would immediately start processing their marriage-license applications. In some neighboring counties, by contrast, officials expressed little enthusiasm about the advent of LGBT weddings. A lesbian bride from a county to the north told me that, when she inquired at her local courthouse about a marriage license for herself and her partner, a clerk told her, “We’re not set up to do that yet.”
Nine of the 37 same-sex couples who exchanged vows in my courtroom drove into Allegheny County from adjacent counties to obtain their marriage licenses and returned here for their ceremonies. Local newspapers and legal journals routinely publish the names of everyone applying at the local courthouse for a marriage license. By obtaining the license in a county other than their own, several couples said they hoped to avoid the attention, disapproval and even hostility a same-sex union might attract closer to home.
A number of the gay and lesbian couples said they have lived peaceably among their neighbors, in some cases for decades, by decidedly not calling attention to their living arrangements and by keeping their private lives private.
Based on my brief conversations with the 37 couples, several reasons emerged as motivations for them to seek a state-sanctioned marriage. They seemed to view legal marriage, variously, as a way of securing rights and equal treatment, as a means of personal validation and affirmation, or as a demonstration of love and commitment. Some couples seemed to be motivated by just one of these reasons, others by a combination of them.
As it turned out, the “brides on the bus” were demographically quite different from most of the gay and lesbian couples who followed them into my courtroom. The initial brides were in their mid-30s and had been together for five years. Of the 37 same-sex weddings at which I officiated, only three of the couples were under the age of 40, and the vast majority were well over the age of 50. Many of the newlyweds had rounded the corner into old age and had been together for decades.
As I got into the swing of performing same-sex weddings, I would sometimes ask the couple before the ceremony, “So, have you two known one another long?” The response was often a hoot of laughter.
I believe the record for longest “engagement” was 48 years, held by two retired gentlemen from Shadyside. After the ceremony, one of them sent me a note saying his wedding day “was a day that, when we were younger, we could not have imagined in our wildest dreams.” The runners-up were two silver-haired brides, now retired and living on a farm in a rural county, who told me they had been inseparable since meeting at a local women’s college more than 40 years ago.
Pennsylvania law does not require that there be a witness to a wedding. Only the officiant and the couple need be present. Some of the gay and lesbian couples came to their wedding accompanied by a throng of well-wishers, friends and family. Several couples were attended by children they were raising together, or by adult children from an earlier, opposite-sex marriage that did not last. One pair of gray-haired grooms brought with them only the framed, Depression-era wedding portraits of their deceased parents. Some couples came to court alone, “just to make it legal,” and were surprised to find themselves moved by the simple exchange of vows.
Regardless of the simplicity or the circumstances, there was an undercurrent of urgency to all 37 of the weddings that I witnessed in the first weeks that gay and lesbian couples had the right to marry in Pennsylvania. Perhaps it was the urgent need to redress a wrong, as Judge Jones described in his decision, so that “in future generations the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage.”
Hugh Fitzpatrick McGough is an Allegheny County magisterial district judge and a volunteer member of the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission.