End of the road is a beginning for US gay newlyweds
The Black Walnut Point Inn is literally at the end of the road in this Chesapeake Bay village, but for seven gay and lesbian couples Tuesday, it was the starting point for a new chapter in their lives together.
Same-sex marriage came into force in Maryland on New Year's Day, and to mark the occasion the couples exchanged vows at the 19th century farmhouse turned bed-and-breakfast adjoining a bird sanctuary with stunning sea views.
"I just love him and I want to be married with him and spend the rest of my life with him," said US Navy petty officer Dwayne Beebe, 38, resplendent in his crisp blue uniform, alongside his partner Jonathan Franqui, 28.
"After 20 years in the navy, to be able to do this openly ... it's wonderful," he said. "One day, across the country, there will be legal marriages for everyone. Yes, it is the future."
Maryland is among nine states, plus the District of Columbia, that recognize same-sex marriage, and one of three that approved marriage equality by popular vote on November 6 -- the same day as the presidential election.
But same-sex marriage remains explicitly illegal in 30-odd states, while the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage strictly as a union between a man and a woman, is being challenged at the US Supreme Court.
In Maryland's biggest city Baltimore, several gay and lesbian couples rang in the New Year by exchanging vows at city hall a half-hour after midnight. More ceremonies are expected Wednesday when court houses reopen for business.
Out at the Black Walnut Point Inn, the first to take the plunge were the innkeepers themselves, Tracy Staples, 47, and Bob Zuber, 48, a couple for more than six years who acquired their property two years ago.
"It's a 36 hour wedding celebration," quipped Staples, a "fourth-generation preacher kid" who went on to preside over some of the other ceremonies on the inn's sprawling lawn where a crucifix overlooks the sea.
Michelle Miller, 45, and Nara Clouse, 52, a couple for 15 years, said they felt a rush of emotion as they held hands, exchanged rings under a gazebo and heard officiant Jen Russell say: "I now declare you married."
"I've been to other marriage ceremonies, but until you really look into the eyes of the one you love and you have the officiant there ... that's really special," Miller said.
"We've already had recognition (of our relationship) from family and friends and even from colleagues," added Clayton Zook, 28, after he and partner Wayne MacKenzie, 30, pledged to spend their remaining lives together.
"This takes it to the next level, where we now have recognition from the state from a legal standpoint," Zook said. "In Alabama, when we first came together, marriage wasn't something we even thought would be possible."
Russell, married in the District of Columbia two years ago and raising two children with her wife, was thrilled at her officiating duties, which she fulfilled with a long rainbow scarf over her shoulders.
"It feels like being a superpower, to be able to say, 'You queers are married'," she laughed. "It's the best thing ever. I'm giddy."
Ruth Siegel, 64, and Nina Nethery, 59, a couple for 15 years, wore matching white "Just Married" caps after their ceremony.
They knew the routine -- both had been previously married to men -- but this time was something else.
"Marriage just changes things," said Siegel. "It's not just a piece of paper."
"And looking into your eyes, and saying those words, and knowing I meant every one of them ... it's just wonderful," added Nethery, turning to her wife. "And then I cried."