Salem men are first to marry
by Ben Casselman - Staff Writer
photographs by Kira Horvath

Salem News
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
Front Page

SALEM - In almost every way, it was a traditional wedding.

The couple clasped hands and choked back tears as they exchanged rings and vows. A black-robed justice of the peace presided. Beaming parents looked on while friends snapped photographs.

It was a traditional wedding in every way butone: the tearful newlyweds were both men.

Robert Murch and Gary Halteman were the first gay couple ever to be married legally in Salem, and among the first to be married in the country. The ceremony took place yesterday on the steps of Salem City Hall, while drivers honked their support on the way by.

"With the blessings of the family and friends and with the authority given me by the commonwealth of Massachusetts," Justice of the Peace Michael Kuhn said at the end of the ceremony, "I declare that you are now spouses for life."

The friends cheered, the couple kissed, and history was made.

"It's such a relief," Murch said after the ceremony. "Now let them try to take it away."

First in line

Murch and Halteman's day began in the same spot nearly six hours earlier. They arrived at City Hall before 6 a.m., determined to be the first in line to apply for a marriage license. Sitting on the building's cold granite steps as a thick mist hung in the air, the two men huddled over cups of coffee as they waited for the building to open at 8 a.m.

They were soon joined by other couples, and the group talked excitedly as they waited. But the other couples were only applying for licenses, content to wait the standard three days before marrying. Murch and Halteman were determined to apply for a court waiver to let them marry that day. They had waited, they explained, long enough.

"If we were straight and one of us was a woman, we would have gotten married five or six years ago," Murch said.

At 8:05, the doors to City Hall swung open, and Murch and Halteman hurried into the clerk's office. Immediately, they faced a decision: on the new gender-neutral forms, which of them would be "Party A" and which "Party B"?

"I know you wanted to be A," Murch said.

"I'm a type A personality," Halteman replied, taking the form.

Fifteen minutes later, after paying a $20 fee, Halteman and Murch walked out of the clerk's office to cheers from the couples behind them. They set off for Salem Probate Court, a brisk two-minute walk away.

In court there were more forms to fill out and even though the forms asked only for names and addresses, a nervous Halteman found himself forced to scratch out errors as his partner fidgeted beside him.

At 9 a.m., Judge John Stevens called the couple to the bench.

"You're our first customer of the morning," Stevens told them with a smile.

"We've been waiting a long time for this to happen," Murch replied.

Stevens signed the waiver application and handed it back to Murch; the courtroom burst into applause.

A generation's legacy

Murch and Halteman have been together for a decade, but unlike many gay couples, they have never held a commitment ceremony.

"We pretty much always said we wouldn't do it until it was legal," Murch explained.

"We were committed," Halteman added. "We didn't need to prove it to anyone else."

But that doesn't mean yesterday's marriage was not important.

Gay couples have been treated as outsiders for so long, Halteman said, that they have internalized the message. "Subconsciously, you just resigned yourself to being a second-class citizen," he said.

No longer. Now, Murch said, young couples won't have to live with that.

"There will be people who will never know what it's like to have their relationship not be the same (as other people's), and that's what it's all about," Murch said. "That's why you do it."

Already, Halteman and Murch were following in the footsteps of older couples who have led the gay rights movement out of the closet over the past 30 years. As they stood in City Hall waiting for their marriage license, the couple chatted with Elaine Cohen and Casie Swenbeck, who will be married Saturday after a quarter-century together.

"They've fought for 25 years for that, and we've got it because of them," Murch said when he left City Hall, license in hand.

Married at last

A few minutes after 11 a.m., Murch, Halteman and Murch's parents returned to City Hall after a celebratory brunch. They were joined by the justice of the peace, wearing a long black robe and dark glasses, and a handful of friends, some of whom held a sign they had made that morning. "Congratulations Bob and Gary," the sign read. "Let the spirit move you."

"This is yet another magical moment here in Salem," said friend Linda Munroe. "We had

faith that it would happen. ... It's just been a long time in coming."

Murch's mother, Carol Sapol, greeted her son with a kiss.

"I've been with my son since the day he was born," Sapol said. "There was nothing that could stop me from being here."

Halteman and Murch handed their titanium wedding bands to the justice of the peace, and at 11:35 a.m. the three of them climbed the steps of City Hall.

"I, Robert, vow to love you and care for you, Gary, as long as we both shall live," Murch promised, his voice choked with tears.

"I take you with your strengths and flaws, and I offer myself to you with my strengths and flaws. I promise to be there when you need me, to fill your days with sunshine, to comfort and encourage you, and to be your best friend forever. This I promise you for the rest of my life."

Reprinted courtesy of The Salem News

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