A Carefully Considered Rush to the Altar
Lesbian Pair Wed After 7 Years Together
By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; Page A01
BROOKLINE, Mass., May 17 -- There's a tale Robyn Ochs and Peg Preble like to tell, about a strange Australian bird whose lifetime is spent in quest of blue treasure -- berries and flower petals, bottle caps and bits of trash, all blue to mimic the satin bower bird's own handsome plumage. The bounty is put on display come spring, creating a blue runway for the bird's mating dance.
It was this story that inspired Ochs one cold morning last November to leave a trail of blue trinkets from the coffee maker on the kitchen counter out the door and into the yard, where Preble found a pretty blue tin beneath the tree. There was a note inside.
"Peg, will you marry me?" it read.
Together for seven years and in love, they believed, forever, the couple realized that a legal marathon had just turned into a wind sprint in Massachusetts, with same-sex marriages about to be validated for the first time in American history. On Monday, the wedding day they never dared dream they might have dawned cloudy and cool, with Ochs and Preble up before 5, hoping to be first in line at their nearest town hall. With Preble, 46, astride her silver motorcycle and Ochs, 45, in the sidecar, they led a wedding caravan of engaged couples from their predominantly gay neighborhood.
Everyone else intended simply to apply for licenses and then have ceremonies over the coming weekend; there are so many of them that Ochs suggested they hire a justice of the peace for an afternoon to go door to door. Maybe they could even bribe the ice cream man to change that annoying jingle on his truck to wedding songs. Anything seemed possible now.
But Ochs and Preble didn't want to plan and couldn't bear to risk waiting any longer.
"We've already waited seven years," Ochs kept explaining.
Preble, the pragmatic one, figured they had better act quickly and decisively, try to keep a step ahead of the lawyers she imagined swooping in at the last moment, with this brief or that motion, slamming shut the window they still can't quite believe is open. They just want to be married. For now, they'll save the big celebration for September, when far-flung friends and relatives can make it.
They have stared down their share of angry protesters, the ones who hurl ugly names or shout out, "You can change!" or carry signs like the doomsday one that had puzzled and shocked them at a gala street celebration in Cambridge the night before: "Thank God for 9/11," it read.
"I hope they're not there," Ochs said before heading to City Hall in her vintage black taffeta skirt and blue velvet top, "but if they are, I'm not going to let them ruin my day."
At the Brookline Town Hall, two silver-haired men who camped out overnight had already claimed the first spot in line, a status Ochs couldn't begrudge them. "They've been together 32 years," she reported back to the friends waiting with them.
Besides, this was just to apply for the license. They would still have to walk across the street to Municipal Court to ask a judge to waive the state's mandatory three-day waiting period. If the waiver was granted, they could return to the city clerk's office to claim their marriage certificate and exchange vows. Ochs had been working the phones for days and had secured the justice of the peace's first wedding appointment for the day.
The sense of urgency the two were bringing to their wedding was a striking contrast to a courtship they recall as slow and "old-fashioned." "We really dated," Ochs said. "We dated for 14 weeks before we kissed."
Two years later, she moved in with Preble. Each brought a calico cat to the relationship, and then they added a third, a cat that likes to lie draped around their shoulders like a fur stole.
Preble is an electrician, the quiet one who fixes things, the one who rigged a green light bulb in an elderly shut-in's window to summon neighbors if he needed help. Ochs is the extrovert, hugging and cheek-kissing and waving her way down every sidewalk, it seems. She teaches classes on bisexuality and sexual politics at Tufts University, and is as likely to wear strappy dancing shoes and sparkling drop earrings as she is to sport a button on her lapel reading "If You're Against Gay Marriages, Don't Have One."
Their families accepted their sexuality long ago, both women said. They have no plans for children of their own.
"Kids and dogs are best enjoyed if they're someone else's" is Preble's philosophy.
Finished with the paperwork at City Hall, they headed for the courthouse across the street, stopping to accept a spray of white flowers from a stranger in a bike helmet who called after them, "Thank you. Thank you for your love and bravery."
The oak benches in the courtroom quickly filled up with mostly female couples, many of them friends and neighbors. This waiver, they all knew, was the wild card of a wild day. No one, including the city clerk himself, seemed to know what the requirements were, what questions might be asked, what answers ought to be given.
Preble had heard that the waivers would be granted automatically, but Ochs was dubious. "If they're in the mood, or like what you're wearing or whatever," she said. They had learned that the regular judge was out of town and this would be a circuit rider. No telling what he might do.
A bailiff entered and the excited chatter in the courtroom fell heavily silent. Preble put a pinstriped arm around her fiancee's shoulder. The bailiff gazed out at the expectant crowd and smiled. "I'm so happy for you guys," she said. "This should have happened long ago."
The room burst into cheers and applause. The judge then swept in, and his clerk rose.
"Hear ye, hear ye," he intoned, declaring court in session and ending with the traditional words, "God save the commonwealth of Massachusetts."
The first couple were called to the bench. They raised their right hands and swore to their identities. The judge glanced down at the papers. "Okay, you're all set," was all he said.
The room broke into hoots of surprise and delight, and loud applause. The white-haired judge restored order with a stern look. But the outburst continued with each new waiver until finally the judge himself couldn't resist a grin.
Within moments, Ochs and Preble were standing before him. "Okay," he said, and with waiver in hand, they were on the way back across the street for their appointment with the justice of the peace.
At 9:25 a.m., their names were called to collect their freshly stamped marriage license. A burly man in shirtsleeves poked his head around the corner.
"We're ready for you," announced Patrick Ward, the town clerk and justice of the peace. He ushered Preble and Ochs into his office, where they sat down in blue chairs. TV cameras and lesbian friends from their neighborhood crowded into the room.
"I've never done this before," Ward apologized, asking them how they wanted to be described in the ceremony, since the traditional "husband and wife" wouldn't apply. Partners, he ventured? Spouses?
"Spouse," Ochs jumped in.
Preble looked surprised. They hadn't figured this part out. "Okay, spouse."
Ward began reciting the familiar vows. And when asked if she, Margaret Preble, took Robyn Ochs to be her lawfully wedded spouse, Preble gazed into her lover's glistening blue eyes and said, "Absolutely, I do." Asked the same, Ochs said through her tears, "Without a doubt, I do." As they exchanged silver rings, the justice of the peace himself choked up. "I'm going to cry," he murmured, and then: "I now pronounce you . . . married."
The newlyweds hugged long and hard. They kissed. Their friends threw rose petals.
"You're all set. It's legal," Ward confirmed, leaning across his desk to kiss both women on the cheek.
"Oh, my God," said Ochs.
They walked out to applause and cheers. Outside, they found a $25 parking ticket on the motorcycle seat and Preble laughed as, with a rustle of taffeta, Ochs climbed into the sidecar now festooned with a "Just Married" sign and streamers of empty cat-food cans. Off they roared. The clouds had started to clear, and a patch of newfound blue was breaking through.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company