DURHAM — Ann Willoughby and Barb Goldstein held hands and approached the Durham County register of deeds counter. The slid their drivers licenses to the clerk, along with an application for a marriage license.
The clerk scanned the document before returning the documents to the women. Willoughby started to cry.
“I know you’re just doing your job, but we’ve been together 30 years,” said Willoughby, a 76-year-old great-grandmother.
Willoughby and Goldstein, 64, were one of three lesbian couples turned away Wednesday by Durham County officials one day after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely as a union between a man and a woman.
Friends, family and clergy members accompanied the women as they attempted to garner support for federal acknowledgement of gay marriage. Just before the crowd of about 50 people marched from a Durham church to the register of deeds office, they celebrated the news that President Obama had said he supports gay marriage.
The demonstration was part of the “We Do” campaign organized by the Campaign for Southern Equality, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In Wilson, six couples also tried to get a license Wednesday.
Similar events are planned for six other North Carolina cities. In Winston-Salem on Thursday and Asheville on Friday, protesters plan to sit in county offices until they get a license or get arrested. Police have been notified, they said, adding the protests will be nonviolent.
The campaign’s executive director, Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, said the public displays help raise awareness for LGBT struggles. She said she is encouraged by Obama’s support, and that “the pathway to equality” is at the federal level, not the state now.
“I think that for LGBT people in the South it is not viable to pursue full equality on the state level,” Beach-Ferrara said. “The passage of amendment one reinforces that ... When you look at the way civil rights equality has been achieved in the past you see federal action has been critical.”
If Obama thought his statement would automatically get the support of gay rights advocates, he was wrong as far as Danielle Horseley, 32, is concerned. The married mother of two was one of about 300 people who marched Tuesday through downtown Greensboro, carrying signs and chanting against the amendment: “Gay, straight, black, white. Marriage is a civil right.”
Asked if she had heard about Obama’s support of gay marriage, she said: “He could have made that statement yesterday when it might have mattered here. He could have come here and said that. I think it’s cowardice he didn’t.”
Also Wednesday, opponents of the amendment said at a news conference that they haven’t decided yet how to proceed in the courts or even whether to pursue legal action to undo the results.
“Yesterday, a phrase was inserted into our constitution, ‘domestic legal union,’” said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Those three words together have no meaning in law. There is no legal definition of domestic legal union. Our first step is to figure out what the amendment does and what it means. Lawyers who represent counties and cities, lawyers for the state, lawyers who help victims of domestic violence, constitutional lawyers like at the ACLU are going to have to figure out what domestic legal union means.”
The “We Do” campaign’s protest against the state’s gay marriage ban made news last fall. Two demonstrators were arrested in Asheville after they refused to leave the Buncombe County register of deeds office. They were charged with second-degree trespassing and released later in the day. Organizers at the time said last year’s events were preparation for future arrests.
North Carolina’s passage makes it the 30th state to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But the state also has laws that prohibit gay marriage and civil unions. Supporters said the amendment makes the definition of marriage more clear; opponents said it could harm health benefits for unmarried couples and affect domestic violence laws.
It has been an emotional two days for Willoughby and Goldstein, who left the event to return to the North Carolina home they bought together in 1986. Despite the recent legislation, the retirees remain optimistic they will be able to get married one day in North Carolina.
“It’s very easy for Ann and me to live our lives every day, but a vote like this brings to mind again that despite how comfortable we feel, there are still many people who resent us and hate us and would continue to take away our rights,” Goldstein said.