“We honestly thought we would show up, get ushered into some judge’s chambers, and it would be very bare-bones, which we were perfectly fine with,” Dorion said, reflecting on the event 10 years later. “So many people were taking videos and photos of us – it was a complete shock. I wasn’t expecting it at all. It was a happy surprise.”
Just a week after the U.S. Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act protecting marriage rights for same-sex and interracial couples by a 61-36 bipartisan vote on Nov. 29, Washington is celebrating its own anniversary: 10 years since it became one of the first states to legally recognize marriage for same-sex couples.
In February 2012, then-Gov. Christine Gregoire signed legislation fully recognizing same-sex marriage rights. Opponents responded by putting the bill on the statewide ballot as a referendum, but voters sided with the legislature in favor of marriage equality in November. The first marriage licenses for same-sex couples were then issued on Dec. 6, 2012.
Almost immediately after the law went into effect, hundreds of couples were married in Seattle. Then-King County Superior Court Judge Mary Yu issued some of the first marriage licenses that Thursday. By Sunday, Dec. 9, Yu, now a Washington State Supreme Court justice, had the courthouse opened at midnight to perform legally binding ceremonies. The first of a dozen couples she married that Sunday was Emily and Sarah Cofer.
Judge Mary Yu, center, smiles as she declares Sarah Cofer, left, and Emily Cofer wed moments after midnight in the King County Courthouse, making them the first gay couple to legally wed Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, in Seattle. Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire had signed a voter-approved law legalizing same-sex marriage the previous Wednesday, Dec. 5, and weddings for gay and lesbian couples began in Washington on Sunday. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Concerned that the state might later repeal the law, Emily and Sarah contacted Yu – who’d previously helped them with the adoption of their daughter – about getting married as soon as possible.
“She emailed us back and said, how about midnight that first day?” Sarah said.
Late at night in the courthouse, Yu took them into her chambers and prepared them for what was to come. Sarah says Yu told them: “There's a lot of press here. You're going to hear a lot of noise. But we're just going to make it a joy for you guys.”
Amid the click of camera shutters, it was a jubilant day.
“It was magical,” remembered Yu, who became the first LGBTQ+ person to serve on the Washington State Supreme Court in 2014. “I was so surprised at the level of sentimentality in each of the couples. It meant so much that they could officially marry one another, in a courtroom, with a judge. It touched me so deeply.”
While someone held the Cofers’ 9-month-old daughter, Yu married Emily and Sarah (who’d had a private wedding ceremony in Hawaii two years prior), making them one of the first queer couples legally married in the state.
“We knew that it was historical,” Sarah said. “We were kind of in awe of the moment.”
Later, as the bailiff handed out roses, they watched as a variety of couples tied the knot.
“Everyone could not stop smiling,” she said.
Yu remembered lots of joyful tears, and one man who set up a video conference over his phone so his mother, who couldn’t fly in from Minneapolis, could see the ceremony.
“It just meant so much to him to have her see it,” she said.
But Yu also remembered that beyond the sentimental value of the moment, it marked a legal turning point.
“Everyone recognized it was significant in terms of protecting the right to enter into this contract that’s enforceable,” she said.
For Emily and Sarah, both elementary school teachers in Arlington, it meant that they could be certain that they were treated as legally equal parents of their daughter Carter and have rights to be with her should anything go wrong, medically or otherwise.
Hicks and Dorion were also quick to get a legal marriage because they feared the right to marry might be taken away. They’d been together since 2001, and made plans to get married at Seattle City Hall via text.
“I wrote: ‘So, we're going to get married?’ It was so odd,” said Hicks, an employee of Cascade Public Media, Crosscut’s parent company. “And then I looked at my co-worker, and I was like: ‘I think I just proposed.’ And then I got really emotional.”
They found the setting at City Hall surprisingly emotional. The officiant performing the ceremony asked if they had any vows. They didn’t, but the city had three different versions preprinted.
“All of a sudden we're standing at this makeshift altar, reading vows to each other,” Dorion said.
They both teared up, and later shook hands with then-mayor Mike McGinn. The couple were astonished to hear their names read over a loudspeaker as they stepped outside the building.
“We had no idea we’d be doing this dramatic descending of the staircase with a crowd of people throwing rice at us,” Dorion said.
One of the biggest changes the couple noticed shortly after becoming married — other than it being a lot easier to file their tax returns — was how natural using the term “husband” became.
“That felt like a big, bold step at first,” Hicks said. “But it immediately answered a lot of questions. It's much more specific than saying ‘my partner.’”
Ten years after their ceremony in Seattle, Emily and Sarah Cofer have noticed that reactions from their more conservative neighbors have changed dramatically in Arlington, a city about an hour north of Seattle in Snohomish County. People no longer take a long pause or look at them strangely when either of them say “my wife.”
“I've been teaching at the same school for 15 years,” Emily said of the slowly changing community, “and this is the first year that I’ve had a student with two moms.”
Ryan and Jeff, who celebrated their 10th anniversary with a spa date and dinner at Seattle’s Mamnoon restaurant, say that they’re encouraged that the recently passed Senate bill will protect all existing same-sex marriages. But they believe the U.S. still has a long way to go.
“Sometimes I worry that when we celebrate the progress we've made with same-sex marriage,” Dorion said, “we forget parts of the queer community that are very much in danger. I wish there was the same sense of urgency and acceptance around what's happening with trans rights now.”
Justice Yu still stays in touch with Emily and Sarah, and they send each other Christmas cards each year. Yu said she was happy to see the Senate pass marriage legislation, but is disappointed it didn’t fully legalize marriage rights across the country. She notes that if the U.S. Supreme Court were to reverse the 2015 Obergefell decision that asserted a fundamental right to marry, the law would protect existing marriages but wouldn’t require states that haven’t passed same-sex marriage laws to grant them.
“It’s hurtful at one level because you recognize the limitations of the law,” Yu said, “Yet in Washington state you can’t help but celebrate.”
To Emily and Sarah, who’ve lived in Arlington for nearly 20 years, raising their daughter and being an example of what two loving moms can look like is critically important. When a new LGBTQ+ family moves into town or a teen coming out needs someone to talk to, they make a point to help out.
“We feel like things couldn’t change if we leave,” Sarah said. “We love this community, and we've had a lot of great experiences here.”
“I feel like sometimes people just need to know people,” she said of her more conservative neighbors. “And when they get to know you, they say: ‘Oh, wow, I really love you, so I guess this is all OK.’”