Everyone was using the term “history.” They were making history, some said. Others said they were living history. I was there, in the Pulaski County courthouse, to record that history. This is some of what I saw and heard.
“We’re helping make Arkansas history!” exulted Sherri Vadala, a 44-year-old gourmet food entrepreneur from Maumelle. She and her partner, C.J., a 35-year-old surgeon who already had legally changed her last name to Sherri’s, agreed. They laughed. Then, in the courthouse rotunda, after 15 years together, they married. They laughed, a little, during the ceremony even though both were crying.
A few feet away were Stephen Inman and Eddie Crawley, two 40-somethings in shorts and sandals and polo shirts who were partners in a pair of beauty salons and, now, in matrimony. Inman was holding the couple’s 7-month-old adopted daughter, Rhett.
“All the way here I kept thinking, ‘It’s not going to happen,’” Inman said. “But here we are. Arkansas is on the right side of history.” Rhett, seemingly unaware of the history being made, just gurgled.
The word had spread across the nation, of course, word that a judge in Little Rock had struck down, in powerful prose, Arkansas’s constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage. Conway and White and Washington and Lonoke counties also were named defendants in the successful lawsuit but same-sex couples had less luck there than in Pulaski, where, by Monday’s end, nearly 200 partnerships were granted legal cover. For however long, for whatever course the appellate process would take, gay marriage was lawful in Arkansas, and that was enough to bring several couples from out of state.
Such as Arkansas native Anna Dadwell and her partner, Lisa Wilkison, who motored over from the home they’ve shared for eight years in Coweta, Okla., to tie the knot. “It’s a beautiful state, Arkansas,” Dadwell said, though I don’t think she meant the scenery. She and Wilkison had wanted to marry in Oklahoma, but Oklahoma was not OK with that (though, its prohibitions, as those of many another state, are under legal challenge). “We didn’t want to wait,” Wilkison said. “We wanted to change history.”
Already it had changed. As when two men of different pigment, graphic artist Nathaniel Bledsoe and his partner, Cougar Copelin, kissed in the courthouse, a non-denominational clergyman having pronounced them husband and husband, and nothing was heard but cheers.
“It’s a milestone for us and our state, to be recognized this way,” Copelin said. “It’s a sign of how things have changed here over time.”
There were other signs. There were several clergy present to perform the ceremonies, some of them representing mainstream denominations and others, well, less mainstream. Such as the lady who identified herself as a “pagan” priestess. Fitting, some doubtless would say.
And this: a county clerk extending an official welcome to the applicants. Four judges, all of whom must, or may choose to, stand for re-election, volunteering to perform weddings that an attorney general who may have political plans beyond his current office has said he does not oppose (even as he pledges to resist them in behalf of the state).
And this: the almost total absence of any protest. One elderly gentleman in a long white robe stood across the street but, witnesses said, departed after a half-hour, dispirited. An African-American clergyman circled the rotunda bearing signs condemning the proceedings, but he was largely ignored. When he upbraided one of the judges, Wendell Griffen, who was robed not in courtroom black but in the gray of his Baptist pastorate, His Honor mostly shrugged. “Allies must affirm those who have been oppressed,” he said, and smiled.
Another circuit judge, Morgan Welch, strolled from his chambers one floor above the rotunda in shirt sleeves and tie, coffee cup in hand, to survey the throng. “I said that if anyone wanted to get married I’d be happy to do it,” he chuckled. “But I’d feel silly standing around in my robe like I’m selling something,” Later he would have four buyers.
At the conclusion of each pair of “I do’s” there was sustained applause that thundered against the rotunda’s marble floor, columns and walls, pushing against the multi-colored skylight. It had not yet begun to rain, though a good many people believed they saw a rainbow.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.