I Now Pronounce You Partners-In-Life
Debbie Hubbell and Linda Wenner stepped aside, allowing two women to pass them Saturday in the narrow hallway of Lyme Town Hall. The chance brush-by would have been insignificant had the four women not been there for the same reason.
Congratulations, Hubbell said to one of them, a silver-haired woman who smiled and walked by holding a bouquet of a dozen deep-red roses.
Moments later, Hubbell and Wenner, both 47, stood before Justice of the Peace John Scott in the speckled shade of a small garden next to the Lyme Public Library. In one hand, each woman held six similar red roses. In the other hand, each held the other's.
After a short speech, Scott pronounced the women partners-in-life.
With watery eyes, smiles, a hug and a kiss, Debbie Hubbell and Linda Wenner became one of the first couples in Connecticut to be joined in a same-sex civil union.
I can't believe it's legal, Hubbell said.
Twenty-eight years of waiting, Wenner said.
Let's go file our paperwork, Hubbell answered through smiling tears.
With the ceremony officially complete, the two women returned to Town Hall to certify their union license. Town Clerk Ruth Perry then logged the women as the first entry in a new record book she had started for just that purpose.
Wenner and Hubbell's ceremony Saturday took advantage a law passed by the state General Assembly last April that granted same-sex partners a set of rights that previously belonged only to blood relatives and heterosexual married couples. The law took effect Saturday.
City halls in Hartford, Stamford, New Haven and a half-dozen small towns held special weekend hours to issue certificates to couples who said they waited for years to be legally recognized. Lyme was apparently the only town in New London County that opened specially on Saturday.
The 2000 U.S. Census found about 7,400 same-sex couples in Connecticut, but no one was tracking how many applied for licenses Saturday. The day passed with few reports of protests, except for a rally at the Capitol sponsored by the Family Institute of Connecticut. It drew about 50 people.
Oct. 1 is a tragic day because it's the first day a law goes into effect that states a legislative belief that children don't need both a mom and a dad, said Peter Wolfgang, the director of public policy for the institute.
While not as comprehensive as marriage, the new law allows partners to share benefits, such family leave, and public assistance, and to file joint tax returns at the state and local levels. Likewise, same-sex partners now have a right to visit each other during hospital stays and be privy to information a doctor would normally tell the spouse of a sick person.
Wenner said the right to hospital visitations lifted a particular worry for her. Eight years ago, Wenner recalled, Hubbell had to be rushed to a hospital when she suffered from complications to surgery. Wenner arrived shortly afterward and explained her relationship with Hubbell to the nursing staff only to be made to sit in the waiting room for an hour without a word as to her partner's condition.
She shook her head, remembering that the not-knowing was devastating.
Hubbell, a pharmacist at the University of Connecticut's Storrs campus, and Wenner, a state animal control officer, have been together for just shy of three decades. About 13 years ago, while still denied the opportunity under state law, the two women decided to make their relationship as official as possible. They wedded at a Unitarian church in Willimantic. The celebration, Wenner said, forced some family members to come to turns with the two women's homosexuality.
Those who hadn't faced it, had to face it then, she said.
We've been lucky, said Hubbell, who explained that their families have accepted their relationship. When you hear stories about gay couples getting kicked out and disowned by their families ... we've been lucky.
Still, the church service did not carry the weight of Saturday's ceremony.
It was just a blessing of our union, which doesn't hold legal rights anywhere, Hubbell said.
Wenner and Hubbell, residents of Willimantic, drove an hour down twisting back roads to Lyme after a brief Internet search to find a town clerk who could accommodate them on Saturday morning.
Opening her office doors on a weekend, Perry said, was nothing unusual and she was adamant that Hubbell's and Wenner's union should not be seen as extraordinary.
Somebody said would you do it for other people, and I always do, Perry said, explaining she frequently fielded requests for marriage licenses after regular hours.
I didn't make a special exception (Saturday), Perry said. I didn't want it to be something of an anomaly.
The shift in Connecticut law marks only the third time a state government opted to recognize gay relationships. Vermont began passively allowing civil unions in 2000. Massachusetts went further, allowing same-sex marriages in May 2004.
State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal recently ruled that while Connecticut would recognize civil unions legally formed in other states, same-sex marriages would remain unrecognized.
John Scott, the justice of the peace who performed Wenner and Hubbell's ceremony, said he does not see this ruling necessarily in a negative light.
For those of us who think same-sex marriage is appropriate, it's a good thing, said Scott, who is gay. It gives us an argument as far as court cases are concerned that there's still discrimination in the process.
Scott explained that if Connecticut recognized out-of-state same-sex marriages, it would be a far tougher fight to advocate legalizing in-state weddings here. Gay couples could just go elsewhere.
For now, Wenner and Hubbell said they had no plans to leave Connecticut. They figured by the time they were ready to hang it up and do some traveling, the national attitude toward civil unions might be very different.
Maybe by the time we retire, they will be recognized elsewhere, Wenner said. You can only hope.