In November 2004, five months after Massachusetts became the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage, voters in Georgia overwhelmingly adopted an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. With just 17 percent of Georgians approving of same-sex marriage, the outlook for same-sex couples in the state who wished to be treated equally under the law looked bleak.
Then the tide began to shift. Slowly but surely, gay people made strides across the state. Atlanta had long fostered a thriving gay community, becoming known as the epicenter of the gay South. But the progress wasn’t confined to the city limits. Doraville city councilman Brian Bates became the first openly gay Republican to win elected office in Georgia in 2007. In 2010, Derrick Martin made national headlines by bringing another boy to his high school prom in the small town of Cochran. And last year, Marietta high school junior Sage Lovell was elected to her school’s homecoming court, becoming the first openly transgender student in Georgia to do so.
Yet the state’s political climate rendered legislative efforts to extend the freedom of marriage to same-sex couples hopeless. In 2010, Karen Handel, a Republican candidate for governor, was adamant about her opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption, saying: “Do I think that gay parents is in the best interest of the child? No.” In 2013, the chair of the state Republican Party said, “It is not natural for two women or two men to be married.” In the 2014 midterm elections, even the Democratic candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, while both expressing personal support for gay marriage, offered caveats like “I do think it’s important for people to know that no one in the movement is talking about telling churches what to do” and “the definition of marriage should be left to individual states.”
By the end of 2014, though, signs were beginning to emerge that the state’s same-sex marriage ban wouldn’t last. Same-sex couples in other southern states were rapidly gaining the right to marry, with same-sex marriage coming to Virginia, Oklahoma, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Alabama between October 2014 and February 2015. On April 22, civil rights organization Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s same-sex marriage ban.
Then, all of a sudden, on June 26, the Supreme Court handed down one of the most significant decisions in the Court’s history. In one fell swoop, all of the remaining state bans on same-sex marriage, including Georgia’s, were struck down. In Atlanta’s Fulton County Courthouse, the mood was ecstatic, and a little incredulous, among the same-sex couples who were finally able to say “I do.”
“I’m shocked,” Barbara Schwartz said. “I can’t even believe this is really true, but I’m very, very excited.” She had just married Julia Troxler, her partner of many years. “I’m totally overwhelmed,” Julia added. “I just never thought I’d see this day.”
Newlyweds Janaya Davis and Michelle Turner were equally elated. “I’m super excited, especially to do it on this day, this historical day,” Janaya said. “And it just coincides with the feelings that we have for each other, so there’s no better time than today.”
Nicole and Carmen Wilson had a marriage ceremony on June 26, 2010. Now, five years later, their marriage is finally recognized by Georgia. “It feels great. It’s overwhelming,” Nicole said. “We woke up and heard this news and had to come and be a part of this.”
There is certainly still progress to made, especially outside Atlanta, where gay people still face discrimi nation and sometimes threats. It is still legal to fire someone, or deny them housing, because of their sexual orientation. But those battles will be fought another day. For now, there were vows to be exchanged, cake to be eaten, and wedding bells to be rung.
Fourteen years ago, the Confederate flag still flew over the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. Now, just a few blocks down Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, the only flag to be seen in the crowd celebrating outside the courthouse was the rainbow flag.
Image source: Quinn Mulholland