CHIPLEY (NSF) – Wearing cowboy boots and bolo ties, Steve Schlairat and Ozzie Russ exchanged wedding vows as they stood beside two saddles perched atop bales of hay on a chilly Saturday afternoon with friends and family looking on.
The longtime duo are among hundreds of gay and lesbian couples who received marriage licenses or were married this week after a federal judge’s decision striking down Florida’s gay-marriage ban took effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
Saturday’s wedding overlooking a horse pasture and a plowed field in the Panhandle community of Chipley was a pared-down version of a lavish commitment ceremony Russ and Schlairat held nearly 15 years ago. Their wedding rings arrived on a Harley Davidson pillow carried by a young cowboy, as a flower girl sprinkled straw on the patio. Guests supped on pulled pork, chicken pot pie and scalloped potatoes that Russ, a caterer, cooked himself.
Many of the newlyweds throughout Florida may not have any idea who Schlairat and Russ are, but the Washington County couple was instrumental in paving the way for same-sex marriages.
Schlairat and Russ — an interracial, gay couple living in one of the state’s most conservative environs — are two of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that resulted in the overturning of Florida’s voter-approved ban on gay marriage. Two of the other plaintiffs served as their best men in Saturday’s ceremony.
Schlairat and Russ weren’t in a rush to get married. But, because of other family weddings and a sense of urgency after a stay expired Monday on U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle’s decision striking down the ban, the couple decided to tie the knot this weekend at their 20-acre home where they raise rescue horses and Great Danes.
The pair is fully aware that they’ve made history.
“I hope it helps other people validate their own relationships in their own lives,” Schlairat said.
Schlairat, 66, and Russ, 48, say they aren’t activists but they have turned into role models in the small town of Chipley, where Schlairat is a retired hospital administrator and Russ works at a convenience store and at a local McDonald’s.
“I hear it all the time at work or just going somewhere to the grocery store. I have people that come up and say thank you for paving the way for either my son or my daughter,” Russ, putting strips of biscuit dough over a simmering chicken dish, said. “I just don’t know how to react to it because I never did something this big before. I’m glad I did because it just didn’t help me. It helped others, hundreds, thousands, probably millions.”
Their best men — Jim Brenner and Chuck Jones — are two of the other plaintiffs. Brenner and Jones, who were married in Canada five years ago, sought civil-rights lawyer Bill Sheppard’s help less than two years ago in challenging the state’s gay marriage prohibition. Their marriage became officially legal in Florida at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
Both couples — and Sheppard — shed a few tears, of relief as well as joy Saturday afternoon, while much of the conversation focused on their lawsuit and gay marriage in general.
“This case is big. But this fight is far from over,” Sheppard, who played a role in desegregating the Jacksonville area in the 1960s, said. “There will be little tangential issues. The institutional bias, the systemic bias against same-sex relationships will be visited on same-sex couples.”
Gathered in the living room for a champagne toast after the brief poolside ceremony, Brenner choked up when recalling a trip to the Washington County courthouse, where he accompanied his friends Tuesday morning as they picked up a marriage license more than a year after workers there refused to provide the couple with a license because they are both men.
“We all said this seems like a dream, something that isn’t real. Something that none of us three years ago could ever dream would happen,” Brenner, leaning against a baby grand piano in a living room ornamented with Christmas decorations and balloons, said.
Brennan credited “the magic between these two and the magic between” Sheppard and his wife and legal partner, Betsy White, who led the charge to overturn the ban.
A tearful Sheppard thanked the four men for giving him another chance to challenge “this bigoted crap” he has been working against for more than four decades.
“You gave us our opportunity to be part of your fight,” Sheppard said.
Schlairat said he believes the focus on gay marriage is forcing straight couples to think harder about what marriage really means.
“I think it’s going to make people look at what is marriage really about, what is the essence of marriage. It’s the commitment of two people. Hopefully, people will make the commitment the number one reason why they go into a marriage. Not because they feel forced. Not because they feel they have to. Not because it was expected of them. You do it when you’re ready with the right person. I think that’s the essence of what it’s about,” he said.
“The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.”
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