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Once in a while you realize history is happening...and this was one of those times. The story of how I got to be a witness to Washington County’s first known legal same-sex wedding is a story of magnificent luck and timing.
After hearing that northern Utah counties were issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, I followed my natural curiosity and called over to the Washington County Clerk’s Office just after 4 p.m. on Dec. 20 and inquired whether they had been asked to issue any marriage licenses to same-sex couples. My timing couldn’t have been better. I was told very politely that no one had asked for one yet but that it was possible one could be issued before 5 p.m., and I was directed to Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap for comment. I was nearly in shock. Could this be happening in St. George? Gay people getting married? Was the world going to end and all hell break loose? Would there be protests in front of the county building? I didn’t know, but I sure was going to find out.
Since my office is just a block-and-a-half away, I stopped what I was doing and drove right over to the County Building on the corner of 200 East and Tabernacle. The 1960s art deco exterior provided an interesting contrast to the time we’re now in. I found the Clerk’s Office quiet, with just one cute (opposite sex) couple finishing up the application for their license, but strangely it felt like the calm before the storm. I took that moment to call the County Attorney’s Office and was able to reach Mr. Belnap, who politely gave me a statement before I told him I had to run because I believed a couple had just arrived to ask for a license. That’s how news happens….fast!
“In regards to obtaining a marriage license, there is no legal basis to treat same-sex couples any differently than opposite sex couples, presuming they otherwise meet the eligibility requirements,” was Belnap’s statement. Simple enough: $30, show I.D., fill out the form, get a marriage license. Wow, could it really be that easy for a same-sex couple to get married, when they’ve been told, and most likely strongly believed, it would never happen in Utah?
I jumped at the possibility to be there when the first couple was given their license certificates, and I felt elated to be – at least for a time – the only news entity to be covering it here in Washington County.
When Ladd Eagan and a cameraman from KUTV 2 News showed up and started filming while I was patiently waiting to take a few pictures and talk with the couples, I knew it was on and that I needed to spring into action. I quickly finished up, talked to both couples and ran out to my truck to get back to the office and post the story of the two licenses being issued. Big news for Washington County and certainly big news for The Independent. Many of you know The Independent as the “alternative” newspaper for Southern Utah and, as of late, the alternative news site at suindependent.com, and I felt it was our responsibly and also privilege to be delivering this quite game-changing development in our county and state’s history.
So after getting back to my office and posting the original story, breaking that the two marriage licenses had been issued in Washington County (read that story here), I kicked myself for not getting contact information from both couples to be able to follow up.
At about 6:30 p.m. I started using my reporter/stalker skills and found one of the four individuals by reading the names off the forms in the photos I took, and having honored his request to not have his name printed, I figured I'd be bold and ask about the wedding. Not finding any of the others, I contacted Marty Pendry, who I was then able to message through Facebook and who graciously sent me an almost immediate response.
I asked if he’d be willing to consider letting me attend his wedding whenever it took place. He messaged me back that it could happen tonight and that he was on the phone with Mark Chambers, who recently lost by just eight votes in his bid to become Springdale mayor.
I’ve known Mark Chambers as one of the owners of Under the Eaves Bed & Breakfast for a few years...and I also know Mark is openly gay. What I didn’t know was that Mark is a minister, legally entrusted to perform marriages. I’d later find out that it was the first same-sex wedding ceremony Mark ever performed. I also later learned that Mark met Marty and Brian through Facebook tonight, as well.
It was just before 7 p.m. that Marty messaged me, saying they were shooting for 8:30 p.m. to start the wedding ceremony...and here’s where it gets good. He asked me in that same message if I’d like to be one of the two witnesses. I told him I would be honored. And I was. It’s not often circumstances present themselves in such a way that you are asked to be a witness to a wedding for someone you met just a few hours earlier.
After enjoying a rushed dinner and celebration at George’s with a few friends, I sped to the St. George home of the couple to be married, Marty Pendry and Brian Strothers.
Mark had arrived with a very good friend of mine, Springdale resident Elise West, who was to be the other witness. I brought my guitar, I guess because that’s my usual role at weddings lately, and because I figured that due to the short notice they would likely not have booked any music or entertainment for the impromptu service.
Mark began the ceremony and Elise filmed while Deanna Garrett took photos and I, um, held my guitar and waited for my spot to play a tune...again, feeling in my more frequent role of being on-call to play when summonsed. So midway through, Mark cues me to start my song of choice, which is...wait for it….”The times they are a changing.’” Yeah, I couldn’t help myself. Just seemed like the right choice for the moment, and I think they enjoyed it. I feel like they did. For a couple that has been together for 11 years, got engaged just over two years ago and had a commitment ceremony in June, the times have changed, and those changes mean they are now officially married.
Mark continued through a very poignant and professional ceremony that brought most of us to tears. It was definitely one of those moments that I'll always remember. The men exchanged the rings they had custom made at a shop right here in St. George, they later told us. They recounted a story of fearing to enter a store to get "sized," only to happen upon a jeweler who'd been with his same-sex partner for 23 years. The story ended with the store staff clapping and cheering.
Before I knew it, the men had exchanged rings, and with just the most carefully worded phrasing they were pronounced spouses and partners. In fairly typical fashion, they kissed and embraced and kissed again. Something that might have bothered me when I was young, living here in southern Utah, but times have changed, and I've changed with them.
I was asked first to sign the fresh documents as one of two legal witnesses, and what a witness I was. Taking notes, snapping pictures, asking for quotes...that's the way to witness something, be a part of it!
“It was an early Christmas present for us,” Marty said after the signing of the marriage certificates. And forever, my signature will be on their document, legalizing their commitment to each other. “I’m just overwhelmed,” he said.
“When I proposed to Marty two years ago, I would have never believed we’d get married in Utah,” Brian said. “It’s almost surreal. As a gay person growing up, I never thought I’d get married.”
Around that same time, longtime Southern Utah LGBT advocates Steve and Linda Stay show up, excited to be a part of history themselves...and certainly warranted, considering the time they’ve spent backing this cause for many years. The mood got even more excited, and the happy couple couldn’t help but put on the KUTV news report, which included a short clip of them.
A few personal stories were told relating to today’s ruling, as well as many congratulations to the new couple and all the many couples around the state celebrating tonight.
This story was last updated on Dec. 21, 2013, 9:20pm.
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Written by Josh Warburton, photos by Deanna Garrett