The Ayes Really Did Have It
For me, it was the gavel heard ‘round my world.
As I write this, I am still not certain exactly how to describe the events and emotions of Tuesday, May 7, at Legislative Hall in Dover, Delaware. That was the almost-unbelievable day when the Marriage Equality Bill, HB 75, already passed in the Delaware House of Representatives, passed in the Delaware Senate, making same-gender marriage the law in Delaware.
Yes, it’s state law, not yet federal, but I never thought I’d see even this much in my lifetime, and I am still giddy from the wonderful shock.
On the day of the vote I was in Senator Karen Peterson’s small office at Legislative Hall listening to the proceedings on a squawk box. I’d arrived from teaching a class too late to get a gallery seat. Equality Delaware President Lisa Goodman spied me loitering in the lobby and escorted me to the senator’s office. There, I joined several Equality Delaware volunteers and Stonewall Democrats as Lisa rushed back to the Senate floor, where she, attorney Mark Papura, and Senator David Sokola, among others, started the day’s business of making history.
For three long hours I sat in the senator’s office, listening to the encouraging testimony of marriage equality proponents alternating with the disheartening, infuriating, and often ignorant testimony of the “No Genderless Marriage” team. I squirmed in my chair, listening to their irrational fears and mostly irrelevant arguments, nervous about the upcoming vote and seemingly struck by restless body syndrome. Would all the senators who’d promised YES votes show up? We needed 11 YEAs from the 21 senators. What was about to happen? I fidgeted and fidgeted some more.
While Dixiecrat Democratic Senator Venables droned on about the perils of gay marriage, we learned one of the promised YEAs was missing. “Find him!” came a cry in the hallway, a fellow senator rushing to action.
Bible verse after Bible verse came over the speaker as angry, fearful people testified to their worry that children would be taught gay marriage is, gasp, normal! And what about florists who don’t want to provide arrangements for gay weddings? Or photographers who don’t want to snap pix of gay people?
Senators and Equality Delaware lawyers happily let everyone know that since 2009 there has been a law on the books forbidding discrimination against gay people by the likes of florists, photographers, and any other business accommodating the public—and guess what? There’s been hardly a complaint or a problem since. Another irrational argument trounced.
By this time the missing YES voter was in the chamber and warm, rational words continued to alternate with demeaning, hurtful, and oddly reasoned ones.
An amazing exchange occurred when Senator Peterson herself answered a question that was both foolish and denigrating to gay people, The senator flung open her own closet door in an emotional speech about her 24-year relationship with her partner, saying, “Neither I nor my partner chose to be gay anymore than heterosexuals chose to be straight. If my happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage then you need to work on your marriage.” It was a jaw-dropping, applause-invoking moment, right there in Senator Peterson’s office.
When the seemingly endless ugly testimony finally stopped, I could feel tension wash over the room as if one of our famous coastal fogs had just rolled in. A young Equality Delaware staffer leaned on Senator Peterson’s desk and, as the roll was called, checked off names with Yea or Nay. Along the way, we had a surprise YES from Senator Bethany Hall-Long of Middletown, and by vote’s end there were 12 in favor, 9 against.
When the Senate president announced the passage or HB75 there was a stunned silence and a collective intake of breath as our small group then broke into cheers and applause. One second later, the din delayed by distance, we heard the thunderous cheers, whoops and hollers from the Senate chamber and gallery.
“We’re all supposed to go to the Governor’s office,” announced the young staffer. “He’s going to sign the bill right now.”
Because of where we had been holed up, we hit the grand staircase in the building before most people and practically ran up to the Governor’s office. My knees were jelly, and elated butterflies took over my stomach. This was really happening! In Delaware!
Bonnie and I had just arrived at the outer office door when a grinning Governor Jack Markell came through it—and we were among the first people the governor hugged and congratulated. (See photo on page 7.)
It brought me right back to years ago when then-state comptroller Markell spoke up early and often, at his own political peril, for our cause; when Speaker Schwartzkopf first ran for election as an underdog in our district and he bravely made the decision to fight aggressively for our rights; to when Steve and Murray first started CAMP Rehoboth, fighting for simple safety and respect for LGBT residents. Look how far we’ve come thanks to all our political allies, tireless activists and incessant advocates. For me, it was a stunning moment, as I stood with my wife on the state house staircase and knew that Delaware considered our marriage truly equal to all others.
With more than 200 marriage equality supporters standing on the grand staircase and around the balcony on the second floor, we heard a smiling Governor Markell tell us, “I do not intend to make any of you wait one moment longer. Delaware should be, is and will be a welcoming place to live and love and to raise a family for all who call our great state home.”
And with that, a small table was placed on the staircase landing so the governor could stand amid many of the senators who voted yes, the activists from Equality Delaware, and other marriage equality supporters and sign the bill that had passed only a few minutes before.
I’m still having trouble believing it. As you know, I’ve always adored my hometown of Rehoboth Beach for its embrace of its gay residents and visitors. But now the whole state, tiny as it may be, is onboard with our civil rights. Pretty darn amazing.
Fay Jacobs is the author of As I Lay Frying—a Rehoboth Beach Memoir; Fried & True—Tales from Rehoboth Beach, and For Frying Out Loud—Rehoboth Beach Diaries.