First gay marriages in New Jersey take place

Joseph Panessidi (right) and Orville Bell were the first same-sex couple to be married in New Jersey, by outgoing Newark mayor Cory Booker. Photograph: Adam Hunger/Reuters

[]Seven same-sex couples were married en masse in Newark on Monday morning, minutes after New Jersey officially became the 14th state in the US to allow gay marriage.

Newark mayor Cory Booker officiated at the ceremonies, describing it as “one of the greatest privileges” of his life in one of his last acts in office. Booker, who rose to national renown through savvy use of social media and a penchant for heroic acts, was elected to the US Senate last week and will be sworn in later this month.

“It is officially past midnight. Marriage is now equal in New Jersey,” Booker announced at Newark city hall at 12.01am. The assembled crowd of activists and soon-to-be newly weds cheered.

Booker had refused requests to officiate at marriage ceremonies since being elected mayor in 2006, in protest at same-sex marriage being unlawful in the state. A judge ruled last month that New Jersey must recognise same-sex marriages, and despite late attempts to delay the ruling – including by the state’s governor, Chris Christie – it was upheld on Friday. Booker made up for his seven barren years in office as he swiftly joined a total of nine couples in holy matrimony – including two heterosexual couples – within around 20 minutes.

Joseph Panessidi (right) and Orville Bell were the first same-sex couple to be married in New Jersey, by outgoing Newark mayor Cory Booker. Photograph: Adam Hunger/Reuters
Joseph Panessidi (right) and Orville Bell were the first same-sex couple to be married in New Jersey, by outgoing Newark mayor Cory Booker. Photograph: Adam Hunger/Reuters

“Do you wish to join in marriage?” Booker asked Joseph Panessidi and Orville Bell, both 65, who were first in line to be married. Both Panessidi and Bell answered in the affirmative.

“And I wish to join you,” Booker said. “Not in the marriage,” he added quickly, as laughter flowed up toward the ornate ceiling.

A momentary shadow was cast over the ceremony when Booker asked the crowd to speak if they knew of any “substantive reason” why Panessidi and Bell should not be wed.

“This is unlawful in the eyes of God,” shouted an earnest-looking man wearing a beige jacket. He continued to shout as he was escorted out by police. “The Bible says that ‘he that lieth with a man as he does with a woman, it’s an abomination in the eyes of the Lord’,” the man, 24-year-old Mark de Rouville, told the Guardian afterwards.

The interruption was minor, however, as Booker said he had not heard “any substantive reason” in the protester’s message. He continued rattling through the ceremonies until all were wed.

“We feel that it’s clear now,” Panessidi said afterwards as guests drank champagne, ate cake and danced to Diana Ross’s 1980 hit I’m Coming Out. “You can’t misunderstand what our relationship is. It can’t be dismissed or refuted by anyone.”

He had met Bell in New York City 15 years ago, in a bar, Panessidi said. “It was a good bar,” he recalled. “And it was a great night.”

Bell, a former teacher, said both he and Panessidi were old enough to have “seen monumental events” over their lifetimes. “And this is a monumental event,” he said.

Booker, a former Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate, rose to become one of the best-known politicians in the US through a combination of his Twitter presence and acts of heroism – he rescued a neighbour from a burning building in April 2012 and also rescued a dog that was apparently stranded outside in the cold – after being alerted to its plight on Twitter. He is likely to be sworn in to the Senate later this month after winning his election on Wednesday.

Gabriela Celeiro, 34, and Liz Salerno, 38, were the fourth couple to be married by the soon-to-be ex-mayor and praised him for his support. The couple met in New York five years ago, they said.

“It was love the minute we got this close to each other,” Salerno said, using her hands to approximate a distance of about six inches. “We could not separate at that point. We just had to be together.”

Salerno said it felt different to be married. “I feel like I’m an actual human being, and I’m respected to the same level as others are. There’s still going to be challenges. Not everyone wants to see us together and let us be together, but at least when you have the leaders of a state, that trickles down and makes it more acceptable.”

One of the high-profile opponents of same-sex couples being allowed to get married is governor Chris Christie, who had attempted to have the ruling allowing same-sex marriage delayed. As well as the ceremony in Newark being a triumphant farewell for Booker and a once-in-a-lifetime moment for the nine newlyweds, it afforded New Jersey Democrats the opportunity to highlight Christie’s opposition ahead of next month’s gubernatorial election. While Christie is odds on to be re-elected for a second term – a Quinnipiac poll on Thursday showed him leading the Democratic candidate, Barbara Buono, by 62 to 33 – the greater prize for Democrats could be to see the New Jersey governor’s conservative stance on social issues reinforced ahead of his rumoured 2016 presidential bid.

Christie is being forced to walk a tightrope on the issue, with his opposition to gay marriage essential to make it through the ultra-conservative Republican primary process but increasingly toxic nationally. A Gallup poll in July found that 55% of Americans support gay marriage, with 40% opposed. [The Guardian]



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