The road to same-sex marriage in Maryland passed through Annapolis and a divisive statewide referendum before reaching a small inn down a windy spit of land in the Chesapeake Bay, where Ruth Siegel wept as she wed Nina Nethery on New Year’s Day.
Siegel, a retired graphic artist, and Nethery, a systems analyst, wore matching white suits and blouses. In the hours before the ceremony, which began at 12:02 a.m. Tuesday, they wore custom baseball caps.
“Bride One,” read Siegel’s.
“Bride Two,” read Nethery’s.
The pair from Silver Spring were part of the first wave of weddings in Maryland after voters became among the first in the nation to endorse same-sex marriage on Nov. 6.
Until this year, voters around the country had rejected gay marriage more than 30 times. But Maryland joined Maine and Washington state in breaking that streak, reflecting a broader shift in public opinion. A majority of Americans now support the idea, up from a about third six years ago.
Same-sex marriages are now legal in nine states and D.C. But another 31 states have banned the practice through constitutional amendments. The debate is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which last month agreed to hear two cases on the issue.
In Maryland, many families ushered in the New Year — the day the law took effect — by gathering in diverse settings to celebrate their new civil right. A half-dozen weddings were held throughout the day at the Black Walnut Point Inn on Tilghman Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Among those joining Siegel and Nethery for weddings at the inn were the proprietors of the place. There were several others, including sign language interpreter Kevin Lowery, 51, of Glen Burnie, who translated the ceremony for his soon-to-be spouse, Joey Lowery, 48.
Clayton Zook, a Baltimore videographer, married Wayne MacKenzie, a meteorologist. The couple met at TV station in Huntsville and have been together for
6 1/2 years.
Siegel and Nethery, though, were among the first.
“Nina and Ruth, we have heard you promise to share your lives in marriage,” said Jen Russell, who struggled to officiate without choking up. “By the powers vested in me by the state of Maryland, I declare you legally married!”
In the hours that followed, the couple donned hand-decorated “Just Married” hats while they sliced an intricate rainbow-colored layer cake and sang softly to each other as they slow-danced to singer-songwriter Cris Williamson’s “Waterfall.”
In their 15 years together, Siegel and Nethery have had three previous commitment ceremonies. But this felt different.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it through that one,” said Siegel, 64.
“This is better than I even imagined it could be,” said Nethery, 59.
Both of them had earlier marriages, and they were hungry to have the depth of commitment that comes with that.
“When we have an argument, I always think about splitting up and leaving. But I’ve been married before and I remember this phenomenon. It changes your perception on how you work through problems, because running away is no longer an option,” Nethery said.
The victory for gay marriage advocates in Maryland was a narrow one, with 52 percent supporting allowing gay and lesbian couples to obtain civil marriage licenses and 48 percent opposing it.
But narrow was more than good enough for Ogden White, a retired Presbyterian minister and Nethery’s brother-in-law, who saw a hard-earned win for civil rights.
“I think of Martin Luther King talking about being a headlight rather than a taillight,” White said.
The referendum passed by strong margins in such jurisdictions as Montgomery County and Baltimore, but lost in other communities, including Prince George’s and Talbot, the Eastern Shore county where Siegel and Nethery joined the other couples at the Inn.
Proprietors Bob Zuber and Tracy Staples helped run the show for the others, even as their own family and friends gathered to share their union.
Even so, there were occasional hints of the continuing struggle over the meaning of marriage.
Staples’s father, Harriston Wilson, said he agreed to travel from Columbus, Ohio, for the ceremony because he loves his son. But the longtime church elder said the day left him with “mixed emotions. Let me leave it right there.”
“God loves the people, but not the lifestyle,” he said. “There may be those who do not follow his directives, but that does not stop His love.”
Still, Tracy Staples set an exuberant — at times exultant — tone.
“With the power vested in me by the courageous people of the great state of Maryland, I pronounce you — two men — legally married! You may kiss your husband,” Staples declared, as Dwayne D. Beebe and Jonathan Franqui stood in black-and-white Converse sneakers, jeans, and tuxedo vests, and joyously complied.
Beebe, a senior chief petty officer in the Navy, moved to Florida from Rockville a couple years ago, and he and Franqui are planning a large wedding with family and friends there in March (including flowers arranged by Franqui’s mom and a rainbow of solid-colored bridesmaids’ dresses.) But gay marriage isn’t legal in Florida, and the couple was eager to give their wedding day in Pensacola a foundation from the Free State.
“We wanted the ceremony on March 30 to be not just two guys saying, ‘I do.’ We wanted it to be a legal marriage,” Beebe said.
Beebe’s 17-year-old daughter, Courtney, held a candle for them Tuesday. Beebe’s mother had the rings. Watching them, Courtney said, “gives me some hope that one day I will find someone I love as much as you guys love each other.”
The couples and families seemed to thrive from one another.
“It’s wonderful for each one of the couples who are here today that they can be themselves,” said Beebe’s mother, Juanell Lopez, who is undergoing cancer treatment at Walter Reed and teared up as she spoke of her son and his new spouse. “It’s going to be like that across the country soon.”
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.