WASHINGTON — Glen Dehn and Charles Blackburn steered clear of festive election night parties, opting to watch the returns from their Baltimore home for fear Maryland voters would reject the right of same-sex couples to wed.
Turns out, there was nothing to worry about.
With voters approving a ballot question legalizing same-sex marriage, wedding plans that were once hypothetical suddenly morphed into reality.
Gay couples, including Dehn and Blackburn, who have been together for 34 years, are now planning to wed and reap not only equal civil rights but the legal benefits that come through marriage. A casual marriage proposal Wednesday between the men, popped in half-jest many times before, carried practical significance for a couple denied for decades the right to wed. They’re hoping for a February church wedding in Baltimore.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet. We’re beginning to get some phone calls from friends. I just think it’ll be so special to be recognized as a member of society, a committed relationship in society,” said Blackburn, who is 79. He and Dehn are among the couples who sued in 2004 to legalize gay marriage in the state. A decision in the couples’ favor was later reversed by an appeals court.
The weddings will take place starting Jan. 1. It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the thousands of gay couples in Maryland planned to marry or who might be first, and there’ll no doubt be logistical questions, such as clearing up gender-specific language, to resolve before then.
Advocates said the vote reflected a national surge in support for same-sex marriage, with exit polls conducted by The Associated Press revealing overwhelming support from younger voters and from women with children.
The campaign also benefited from a broad-based coalition and the advocacy of Gov. Martin O’Malley, who signed a same sex-marriage law in March that was challenged by opponents who collected enough signatures to force a voter referendum. The Maryland Marriage Alliance, which opposed the referendum, said it respected the results and would continue working to ensure that children have a mother and father.
The debate even reached into professional sports when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo publicly proclaimed his staunch support of gay marriage.
“I’m so stoked. It’s like I woke up and it’s Christmas,” Ayanbadejo said Wednesday.
Among those celebrating the referendum was Chyrino Patane, 33, who said he planned to marry James Trinidad, his partner of seven years, in a ceremony in Maryland, where Trinidad was born.
“It’s very progressive, it’s open. Plus it’s one of the newest states that have accepted same-sex marriage, so we would like to do it in this state,” said Patane, who lives in Wheaton.
For some couples, the urgency of the fight was eased by the legalization of gay marriage in the neighboring District of Columbia. That’s where Lisa Polyak wed her partner, Gita Deane, last year after the couple — once plaintiffs in the Maryland case — decided they couldn’t wait for the state to act. She said that even though she’s already married, with two children, the ballot question helped legitimize her relationship and family.
“Now their parents are married and the citizens of Maryland are willing to say, ‘Yep, we recognize that. We honor that relationship,’” Polyak said. “That’s a powerful message for my children.”
The legalization could affect thousands of residents. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law reported more than 12,000 same-sex couples live in Maryland.
Couples apply for marriage licenses in the counties where they plan to wed, but the state — which issues copies of wedding certificates — was reviewing its documents to remove any gender-specific references, said Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. The application for a certified copy of a wedding certificate, for instance, currently asks for the name of the bride and groom.
Advocates were also reveling Wednesday in the broad geographic support same-sex marriage received at the ballot box.
Besides Maryland, the people of Maine passed it by popular vote while Minnesota voters defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned the unions in the state. Washington state also voted on a measure to legalize same-sex marriage, though results were not available late Wednesday.