At approximately 12:11 p.m. today, Hillsborough County Clerk of the Courts Pat Frank wound down her official duties in officiating over the mass same-sex marriage ceremony in downtown Tampa’s Joe Chillura Park.
“By virtue of the authority invested in me, under the laws of the state of Florida, I now pronounce you joined in matrimony,” she said to the cheers of the hundreds who were either participants or observers of the noon-time event amassed on the green grass below her. After the crowd noise subsided, Frank added, “And I’m so proud to have been a part of this day in history.”
Frank’s participation in the event wasn’t clear until last Thursday afternoon, after Federal Judge Robert Hinkle lifted his stay from November, effectively allowing clerks of the court in the entire state to proceed in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Immediately afterwards Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi threw in the towel in her legal fight to stave off same-sex marriage, issuing a statement allowing the remaining 66 clerks of the court to decide on their own whether they wished to proceed (Washington County had already been cleared to go ahead).
Some counties were preparing to issue those licenses even if they did not have Hinkle’s clarification. Frank had earlier said she would not do so, fearful that she could be removed from office by Governor Rick Scott. But today she said she thought she still would have pursued doing so, but admits that Hinkle’s New Years Day opinion provided her a sense of “great relief.”
Frank was wearing the same black robe that her late husband Dick Frank had donned during the 14 years he served as a judge on the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Florida. She said he would approve because “he always fought for justice for people,” referring not only to his time on the bench but over his 85-year-life that ended two-and-a-half years ago, and which also included fighting the Nazis in World War II and later as a practicing attorney. The couple would have married 63 years ago as of two weeks ago, Frank mentioned to the audience.
Among the same-sex couples being married on Tuesday included Tracy Freeman and Wanda Valdes, who live in Thonotosassa and have been together for 28 years.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Freeman said.
“Yeah, legally it’s a big day, but I mean – we’ve been together forever,” chimed in Valdes. “We have our wills together. Everything’s in both names. We have a child together,…We just want equal and fairness, all the way around. It’s a milestone.”
Tim Stockberger from Spring Hill was in attendance with his partner over the past 16 years, Randy McElroy.
“We’ve been together so long, so to me it’s almost like sealing the deal. You know?,” said Stockberger. ‘We’ve been a couple for so long it’s like we’re already married,” adding that, “We’re so committed to each other.”
Stockberger admits that the pair hadn’t been following the saga of the struggle for same-sex marriage equality that closely. “I think it all happened really fast for us, so we kind of jumped on it when we had the chance.”
The excitement of the day was what prompted Nanette Watson and Mary Hymel from Pinellas County to make the drive over to Joe Chillura Park. Only a year and a half into their relationship, the couple said they personally have no desire at this time to rush off to the altar, but wanted to be part of the experience with their friends in the LGBT community.
“This is history in the making, and I wanted to come down support my family, and these (people) are all my family, so I wanted to come here and be supportive,” said Watson.
Hymel said she had spent part of last night thinking about Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose strong opposition to same-sex marriage has marred her reputation to some extent statewide (though it didn’t appear to hurt her bid for re-election, in which she coasted to an easy victory in November over Democrat George Sheldon).
“I thought, she’s not able to sleep tonight, ” said Hymel. “I just think it’s unbelievable that we live in this society today and we don’t have equal rights. And that she can’t see beyond how she is. Closed minded. This is a basic human right to be able to be with the person you choose. Gender doesn’t’ matter. It should be spouse one, spouse two on this questionnaire to get a license,” she continued as she studied a blank marriage license.
There were several elected officials in attendance, including Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner. Beckner was legally married to his longtime companion, Gil Sainz, back in 2005 in Canada. “It was kind of mixed emotions then because it was a day where you’re proud to marry the one that you love, but… having to go to a foreign country to get married created mixed emotions.”
Beckner said he always had a vision such a day would happen – he just wasn’t sure when.
The day wasn’t completely marred of homophobia. Two protesters charged through the park moments before the ceremony, saying God was against such an event, but they were largely ignored. As they continued to chant as she began the ceremony, Pat Frank said it was certainly their right to dissent, but asked that they allow the event to be held in a “dignified manner.” They were not heard from again.
The decision to waive the three-day waiting period for couples to be married was waived by Frank and most of the clerks of the court around Florida. However, a handful of clerks (including in Pasco County) announced that they would not conduct courthouse marriages going forward, as a way to prevent their involvement in an act that they said they disagreed with. Those gestures were blasted today by Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant, who said in a statement that, “This shameful stunt by a few desperate and out-of-touch politicians who are showing disrespect for the rights of all Floridians. These clerks need to do the job they swore to do, or step aside and allow all Floridians to marry.”
Conservative activist John Stemberger wrote on Monday that such a waiting period can only be waived if the couple provides certification of a four-hour marriage education course. “Query how many homosexual couples are really going to do four hours of marital preparation and how many officials marrying them are really going to follow the law and require documentation of this in order to be married on the same day at the license is issued” he wrote bitterly.
Although Judge Hinkle’s ruling on New Years Day paved the way for sex-same unions to be legalized this week in Florida, there is still a small possibility that the issue could go back to the 11th Circuit to take up the case on appeal. And on Friday, the Daily Beast reports, that the U.S. Supreme Court will be meeting to decide whether to address the recent circuit split on the issue, caused by the Sixth Circuit’s opinion opposing same-sex marriage.