TAMPA — For the first time ever, same-sex couples walked into the Official Records Department of the old Hillsborough County Courthouse, applied for and received marriage licenses. Many wasted no time, as the three-day waiting period had been waived, and at noon Tuesday, dozens took their vows at a group ceremony in a downtown park.
Hundreds of supporters cheered and celebrated the landmark moment.
“It's a wonderful day,” said Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank, as she greeted the first wave of gay couples into Room 140, where nine deputy clerks filled out and issued marriage licenses.
Perhaps 50 to 60 couples, accompanied by friends and relatives, waited outside the courthouse for the doors to open at 8 a.m., and same-sex couples throughout the day filed into the room to make their commitments legal.
At the end of the day in Hillsborough County, deputy clerks processed 159 same-sex marriage licenses and performed 106 ceremonies at the downtown office and in the county's three branch offices.
By mid-afternoon in Pasco County, 21 same-sex marriage licenses had been issued. In Pinellas, 67 same-sex marriage licenses had been signed and 24 ceremonies performed.
At noon, Frank, wearing the judge's robe of her late husband, Richard, married about three dozen couples in the Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park. Hundreds attended and cheered when Frank announced: “I now pronounce you joined in matrimony.”
Frank also was there at 8 a.m. greeting couples and posing for photos inside the courthouse. She officiated the wedding of the first same-sex couple who walked through the door, Brenda Cuevas and Shirley Winslow. The Lutz couple, who have been together for 25 years, had tag-teamed their place in line since 4:30 p.m. Monday.
“It's more important to be in line, period,” Winslow said, “not necessarily first.”
It was a historic day. The ban on same-sex marriages dissolved at midnight, allowing gay couples to legally get married and many took advantage.
“We brought some of our friends,” Winslow told Frank. “They're wrapped around the courthouse.”
Frank married Winslow and Cuevas in a simple, civil ceremony in a makeshift chapel just off the lobby in Room 140.
Winslow said the experience left her feeling changed.
“After 25 years, we didn't think it would feel different,” she said, “but it does.”
As Winslow and Cuevas emerged from the small chapel, the throng in the lobby broke out in applause.
They headed for the exit and a deputy clerk yelled for them, “Don't leave without your license.”
“Oh,” Winslow quipped, “it's just a piece of paper.”
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On the northwest corner of the park, two members of the Pentecostal Followers of Jesus Christ International Ministries created a ruckus when they told the throng their lifestyle goes against the Bible.
“You are going to hell,” shouted Michael Woodard, “every last one of you. You need to repent.”
A few began to shout back at the men, but there was no scuffle.
Tampa police Chief Jane Castor was there, posing with everyone who walked up to her. She said she spoke with Woodard earlier and that he had agreed to have his say and keep quiet during the ceremony.
Frank also heard the shouts and from the podium asked the men to quiet down “so that this ceremony could be conducted in a dignified manner.”
The men complied.
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After the group wedding, Glenn and Alberto Molina-Coats stood near the podium to reflect on what had just happened. This was real.
They had gone through civil union and commitment ceremonies.
“All that carried no weight in Florida,” Alberto Molina-Coats said. “So, as soon as we got an opportunity to be equal citizens, we grabbed it.” They have been together for 16 years.
Taking part in a group ceremony affected them differently.
“At that moment, you feel like you're alone,” Alberto Molina-Coats said.
“I felt connected,” his spouse said, looking around. “All these people have been going through the same thing as us.”
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Edee Damron and Jill Weaver, both of Largo, have been together for eight years and beamed at each other as they held hands and exchanged vows in the park at noon. They brought with them three nephews, all clad in shirts and ties. The couple have temporary custody of the boys.
Damron said the big difference was the protections under the law for married couples.
“We never thought we'd see this day,” she said. “We're very happy. We thought Florida would be the last state.”
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For more than four decades, Mike Ralph and Mickey Bradham waited.
“We've been together 42 years, as of yesterday,” said Ralph, who stood next to Bradham in the line to the courthouse early Tuesday morning. “I don't think this will change our lives, except that we will feel legal.”
They drove to Tampa before dawn from their Citrus County home in Homosassa because they didn't feel comfortable getting a marriage license in their own county or the counties between Citrus and Hillsborough, Ralph said.
“I woke up at midnight and just couldn't sleep,” he said.
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Jon McGuffey and Bob Rajtar, both of Tampa, patiently stood in line before the courthouse opened. They've been together for 12 years and never thought they would be able to get a marriage license. In December, after a court ruling nudged the state in this direction, McGuffey said he knew it would only be a matter of time.
“It's going to go countrywide,” he said. “This an exciting day.”
The legal protections of a married couple are the most important thing, he said. “That's the biggest part,” he said. “It's a constant worry.”
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If Jason Bramlett and Danna Klemmer felt a little out of place in the lobby of Room 140, they didn't show it. All around the groom-and-bride-to-be were same-sex couples, jubilant during their wait for marriage licenses.
Bramlett and Klemmer held their own paperwork, quietly watching the monitor above the counter that showed where they were in the line.
The wait was a lot longer than if they came in on a different day, but they didn't mind. They have planned a wedding for Sunday and needed the license.
“Today's the day,” Bramlett said. “We didn't have a choice.”
So, they waited, taking in the spectacle. The historic significance was not lost on them.
“It's a good thing,” Bramlett said. “It's a great day when you are acknowledged as a couple.”
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In St. Petersburg, longtime local physician Robert Wallace and JoJo Brian Reibel Wallace sealed their three-year relationship during a wedding ceremony officiated by Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Proceeding in to Karen Carpenter's “Top of the World,” the couple met at the bottom steps of the City Hall foyer, where they had a tearful exchange of vows and rings before about 75 onlookers.
Robert Wallace, 59, has been active in the city since the 1980s treating HIV patients and now Hepatitis C patients, as well. JoJo Wallace, 31, works for the Pinellas County Health Department.
They had planned to marry in April but moved up the date when the state made it possible, Robert Wallace said.
“As someone who came out in the 1970s, and always worrying about it,” he later said, “this day tells me I have the same equal rights as anyone in the state of Florida.”
Kriseman, who has known Robert Wallace for many years, called it an honor to marry the couple, “to do something that should have been legal in this state a long time ago.”
Staff writers Steve Girardi and José Patiño Girona contributed to this report.