Michael Robinson ran into the Orleans Parish Marriage License Office at top speed Friday morning, arriving minutes after a divided Supreme Court handed down a landmark opinion that same-sex couples can marry nationwide.
His shoelaces were untied, and he was so nervous he had trouble remembering details, like the fact he was born in Jackson, Mississippi, while filling out an application for a marriage license that used the words “bride” and “groom” on it.
“We’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” said Robinson’s partner, Earl Benjamin. “Of course, we’ve talked about it for years, but we only really believed that it would happen in our lifetime in the last two or three years as several states overturned marriage bans.”
Benjamin, a 39-year-old from Grambling, met Robinson, 41, in a Jackson nightclub 14 years ago. They hit it off instantly and began dating a short time later.
The couple moved to New Orleans in 2010 and bought a home together in Gentilly, a step they thought might be the closest they’d come to any sort of legal union.
But by midmorning Friday, the couple had been showered with flowers and cupcakes and were surrounded by about a dozen friends eager to watch them finally tie the knot.
“I know how much it means to them,” said Tela Love, wiping away tears. “It just means so much to see this happening.”
Four hours later, the jubilation had turned to disappointment.
A two-sentence statement that was read by a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, then handed out, said the couple could not marry — at least not Friday.
Benjamin and Robinson were joined at the marriage office in Benson Tower by two other same-sex couples: Erik Bass and Douglas Alexander; and Davita Monroe and Trinette Monroe.
“Current provisions of Louisiana law remain intact until a final mandate is issued by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals,” spokeswoman Olivia Watkins Hwang said. “Until that happens, the department will continue to follow Louisiana law.”
That means it could be days or even weeks before the first licenses are issued to same-sex couples here.
Louisiana is in an odd legal position compared with other states. Most federal judges faced with the decision already have ruled that state bans on same-sex marriage violate the U.S. Constitution.
But in September, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans became the first federal judge to come down on the other side. His ruling is under review at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
New Orleans, a generally liberal city where local officials might have complied immediately with the Supreme Court’s decision, is at the mercy of the state, which controls marriage licenses.
“I’m still excited. And I know that it’s going to happen,” Benjamin said Friday evening. “But yet I’m frustrated, because we’re just being discriminated against, and it’s sad. It’s like it’s right there in front of us, and we can’t partake.”
He added, “We are not asking for anything extra. We are just asking for the same rights that everyone else has.”
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Friday called on Gov. Bobby Jindal and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to allow same-sex unions to proceed in the state. He said same-sex couples have “waited long enough” to marry.
“The U.S. Supreme Court was clear this morning in its ruling; we have a fundamental right to marry the person we love,” Landrieu said in a statement. “The state has no legal authority to delay issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples even a moment longer.”
Elsewhere in the New Orleans area, most clerks’ offices were quiet. In Covington and Slidell, neither office had seen any applicants in the first hours after the ruling. There were no applications in Jefferson, St. Bernard, St. John or Plaquemines parishes either.
By midmorning, one couple had sought a license in St. Charles Parish. Clerk Lance Marino asked for patience, saying he would call them as soon as the wait is over.
“They were very anxious, but they were also very patient,” Marino said of the two men, who were in their early 50s.
Although same-sex couples weren’t allowed to marry in the metro area, hundreds of people gathered in Jackson Square on Friday evening to celebrate the ruling. Longtime LGBT activist John Hill dubbed it the largest demonstration for gay rights he had ever seen in Louisiana.
When he learned of the court’s decision, Hill said, he jumped up and down and “felt like I did the night the Saints won the Super Bowl.”
The celebratory mood carried to the stretch of lower Bourbon Street that is home to several gay and lesbian bars and shops.
Traffic was steady at Bourbon Pride, where customers stocked up on gay pride memorabilia.
“The party’s about to start,” said the souvenir shop’s owner, Josh Duffy.
Customer Paul Doolan wiped back tears as he remembered growing up in New Orleans and attending a Catholic high school when the Upstairs Lounge arson fire killed 32 people at the gay bar in 1973. The city’s reaction at the time was mostly silence or disdain.
“That was my life,” Doolan said. “In those days, it was so hard to even come out of the closet.”
But his tears quickly switched to laughter as he marveled at the change afoot in the city and nation.
“And now? I can be married in Baton Rouge? In front of Bobby Jindal’s house?” he joked.
Just a few steps down Bourbon Street, a small crowd was gathering at Café Lafitte in Exile, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the United States.
The bar was celebrating the only way Bourbon Street knows how — with a daylong happy hour. Patrons said they were attracted by the bar’s history and a desire to come together in the moment.
Suzanne Raether went to the bar to celebrate after her colleagues at the Greater New Orleans Foundation gave her a collective hug and her boss gave her the day off.
“She was like, ‘Go, go. It’s your day,’ ” Raether said.
The Covington native said she never imagined Louisiana would allow something like same-sex marriage.
“You grow up queer here, and you assume you’re always going to be a second-class citizen,” she said. “Today is going to be an impromptu Pride (Parade). We’re just going to keep it going.”
In the far corner of the bar, a tiny bridal hat sat atop Susan Chapman’s head as she nursed a drink next to her partner, Teddy Mars. Both had taken the day off work.
“We’ve been engaged for two years, waiting,” Chapman said. The couple had considered getting married in Illinois but decided to hold off as an act of solidarity with local same-sex couples who couldn’t afford to get married out of state.
“We didn’t go to straight weddings for a long time. It was part of our activism,” Mars said. “I lost friends over it.”
But on Friday, the pair felt that all their waiting and sacrifice had been worth it.
“This is a time to celebrate what we did win today,” Chapman said. “Tomorrow, it’s back to reality and the work that’s left to do.”
Meanwhile, local religious leaders were split on the Supreme Court’s decision.
Urging local Catholics to speak out in favor of traditional marriage between a man and woman, Archbishop Gregory Aymond said the decision would have major “ramifications” and that the Catholic Church would not endorse or perform any such marriages.
“The Supreme Court by ruling has changed the definition of marriage and also changed the definition of family and family life,” Aymond said. “This ramification will be felt for many generations to come.”
Aymond said the ruling does not change the church’s position on what constitutes marriage, and he made clear that the Catholic Church would not be overseeing or participating in same-sex marriage proceedings in New Orleans, adding that the First Amendment protects religious leaders from “acting against their beliefs.”
“Catholic Christians believe that marriage and the sacrament of marriage is between one man and one woman,” he said. “This belief we have is deeply rooted in scriptures and natural law.”
The archbishop urged like-minded Catholics to seize the opportunity to “do a little bit of teaching about the sacrament of marriage,” but he urged them not to resort to “name-calling” or “hatred.”
Other religious leaders spoke out in support of the Supreme Court’s ruling, however. The Rev. Alisan Rowland, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans, a congregation of mostly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members, said the ruling was a cause for celebration among Christians and all who believe in grace and equality. MCC began performing same-sex unions in 1968 and has long advocated for the legal recognition of same-sex marriages.
“With 37 states already recognizing same-sex marriage, it’s thrilling that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of nationwide legalization of such unions,” Rowland said. “With that acceptance has now come the legal recognition that we are equal and should not be defined based on our orientations. God created us and loves us, and in a nation that prides itself on being the freest country on Earth, this fight should be over. Now, LGBT citizens are on firmer footing to achieve workplace protections along with legal recognition of our relationships.”
In response to the state’s foot-dragging in issuing same-sex licenses, the Rev. Bill Terry, of St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, said, “There’s a man who sits in our statehouse who seems to think he’s some sort of man of faith. He cannot speak for us.”
Though he wasn’t able to get married on Friday, Benjamin said he left the license office hopeful. His optimism came, he said, partly from the heterosexual couples who wished him and Robinson well as they left the office with their licenses.
“You had a diverse group of individuals who were all OK with the fact that we were two men getting married,” Benjamin said. “That’s something that makes me excited not just to be an American but also to be from Louisiana. I think that’s the sentiment of the people of this state.”
Advocate staff writers Della Hasselle, Faimon A. Roberts III, Matt Sledge, Richard Thompson and Ramon Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.