Recollections of Conducting Same-Sex Weddings in New Paltz, New York, March 2004

I knew that New Paltz Mayor Jason West had been performing same-sex weddings, but I learned of the ceremonies officiated by Rev. Katherine Greenleaf and Rev. Dawn Sangrey at a UUMA New York Metro District Chapter cluster meeting in Mt. Kisco, March 9, 2004.  Kay told us about the ceremonies and the legal entanglements that ensued.  I immediately volunteered to join Kay and Dawn at the next weddings.  Motivated by the cause and by my concern for Kay and Dawn’s legal troubles, I believed New York authorities needed to know that there was a long line of religious leaders who were prepared to step in and officiate same-sex weddings in New Paltz.

That week I checked in with Frank Hall, Senior  Minister at the Unitarian Church in Westport (CT), where I was a community minister, and contacted the organizing body of the same-sex weddings, New Paltz Equality Initiative, confirming that I would join Kay and Dawn in officiating weddings on Saturday, March 13.  Charles Clement reviewed plans for the day with me and said pro-bono attorneys would be available to us.  I talked with my family, saying that I was unsure how things would go on Saturday.  I printed out MapQuest directions for the 97-mile drive, gathered the ceremony text, my robe and stole, and then settled down to prepare my mind and spirit.

It rained a lot that week, but on Saturday morning the sky was a brilliant spring blue.  On the two hour drive to New Paltz, I entertained myself by thinking what books I’d request if I were arrested and thrown in jail.  I thought the chances of that were small, but I decided that if charged, I would refuse bail.  I didn’t believe the State of New York would tolerate the sight of one religious leader after another going to jail for officiating at weddings.

I arrived at the bed and breakfast that served as the staging area and waded into the gleeful crowd of organizers, members of the press, the couples to be wed, and their family and friends.  The energy was high, and the couples were giddy; I listened to the stories of couples who had been together for 22 years, 14 years, and 11 years.  A gay couple introduced me to the older woman standing beside them, crying.  She grasped my hand and thanked me for being there and said, “I love my son and his partner.  If he had to wait many more years to marry, would I even be alive to witness it?”

I met my pro-bono attorney, Russell Gioiella, who assured me he would accompany me throughout the day, and be available to me in the future.  I was grateful for his presence, warmth, expertise, and his skills as a chauffeur.  It is hard to move a crowd, and it took a while for several hundred people to re-assemble at the New Paltz Green (or park in the center of town).

The couples, their families, and I crossed sheets of plywood put down to protect our dress shoes from the mud.  Five or six of the couples and I ascended a few stairs to stand in the small pavilion.  A large gathering of other couples, family, friends, and supporters stood at the bottom of the stairs.  Before the first ceremony, I welcomed them and let them know that I was here to celebrate their love and to acknowledge the relationship that already existed.  I said that I didn’t believe we were breaking the law, but instead healing an injustice.  If there were protestors present, I don’t remember them.

One might think that officiating at a ceremony for five or six couples at a time would be impersonal, but that was not our experience.  We felt our circle was a tight-knit group of supporters who understood what it had taken for each of us to be there that day.  We all rejoiced for each couple who said, “I do.”  After the ceremonies concluded, we convened at a local restaurant for a celebratory luncheon where I was presented with a New Paltz Equality Initiative t-shirt (which I have to this day).

The memories and messages of thanks sustained me over the next couple of weeks of newspaper, TV, and radio interviews.  Many New York officials warned me that I would be charged with “solemnizing any marriage between any parties without a license,” but that never happened.  Many other religious leaders and I continued to officiate at same-sex weddings in New Paltz, but to the best of my knowledge, none but the first two, Kay and Dawn, were ever charged.

That felt like a victory, as did the ultimately successful fight for equality.  When New York legally recognized same-sex marriage on July 24, 2011, I heard from several of the couples from New Paltz asking if I would help them to make their union legal at last.