GAY MARRIAGE IS FINALLY LEGAL. NOW WHAT?

Saturday’s “Come Get Married in Hemming Park!!” was part celebration of love and equality, part big gay wedding circus, which is, of course, the best kind of big gay circus (except maybe the Saturday night show at Hamburger Mary’s). But what happens when the show’s over and the bearded lady is back in her trailer chain-smoking Kools and getting twisted on peach brandy? Is Jacksonville going to go right back to its old, bigoted ways when the merriment ends?

Planned and largely orchestrated by attorney/LGBT activist Carrington “Rusty” Mead, “Come Get Married in Hemming Park” was a mass wedding the likes of which the city has never seen: In less than an hour, 34 gay and lesbian couples were wed before a large and diverse crowd. There were drag queens and grandmas and lawyers, all forsaking the warmth of their Saturday beds to stand in the bracingly beautiful winter chill and bear witness to an event this city is not likely to forget. By the end of the day, an additional 25 couples — at least — were hitched as well.

Despite feeling a bit contrived, as all mass weddings certainly must seem — the first dance is an awkward-enough ritual when there aren’t 68 bodies shuffling along to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” surrounded by a rabid pack of photographers and about a thousand spectators — there was an overall sense of wow, this is really happening. Some, like Vicki Karst, whose Jan. 6 marriage to Susan Smith was the first legally recorded same-sex marriage in Duval County, didn’t think they’d live to see the day.

“I mean, I really didn’t know it would happen in this amount of time. I really thought it would be our children, not us, that would see this kind of thing happen in Florida,” Karst said after her nuptials.

There’s long been a perception of Jacksonville as a bigoted, right-wing, close-minded, Bible-thumping podunk where even the sight of a photo of a pregnant woman’s boobs in an art gallery gets politicians’ knickers in a twist. And neither Duval County Clerk of Courts Ronnie Fussell nor the City Council has done much to ameliorate that perception.

It’s actions like the City Council’s rejection of the human rights ordinance, which would have protected LGBTs from discrimination from their bosses and landlords in 2012, and Fussell’s obtuse unilateral decision to end courthouse marriages in Duval County because it might make his staff squirm a little bit to preside over weddings of the Vickies and Susans of the world (see sidebar), that earned Jacksonville the lowest ranking of any major Florida city on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2014 Municipal Equality Index, which rates cities’ treatment of LGBTs. (If you’re curious, that ranks us behind places like Columbus, Georgia, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Waco, Texas, none of which would be considered especially gay-friendly. But hey, we edged out Jackson, Mississippi, so that’s something.)

Joey McKinnon, president of the Jacksonville Young Democrats, says the city’s leaders should take note that the younger generation considers LGBT equality a no-brainer, and may be less inclined to move to or remain in Jacksonville if the city continues to permit discrimination against them.

“As chair of a young professional organization, I have seen Jacksonville lose some of its best and brightest to other cities that reflect the values of today’s young professionals,” he says.

Saturday’s mass wedding, a watershed moment in a city that could use more like it, was a rare downhill stretch on a road that has been mostly rugged, hilly terrain. Some were swept up in the emotion of it; others recognized it as an opportunity to work for more lasting change.

Al Reynolds, a born-and-bred local who plans to wed his partner of 20 years in a private ceremony later this year, told Folio Weekly that over his lifetime, the LGBT community has come to be considered part of society, but their work isn’t finished.

“I should not be considered a second-class citizen,” he says.

Recognizing that the legalization of same-sex marriage is but one step in the right direction, Mead seized the opportunity to create a political action committee to promote LGBT equality. She officially announced the Northeast Florida LGBT Leadership PAC at Saturday’s espousal event, and right away there was a line to sign up for the mailing list.

“What we need in Jacksonville is a mayor and a council that support equality for all and is not afraid to make a bold statement,” Mead told the crowd. “We do not need politicians who will stand in the background and say nothing.”

And while many recognized the support LGBTs were receiving from the legal community, businesses, straight allies and others, it wasn’t all victory laps and hope for the future, though there was quite a bit of both. There’s serious work to be done if this city is to become as welcoming to LGBTs as it is to their tax dollars.

Troy Farquhar, who’s active in the LGBT community and whose law firm, Integrity Law, opened its doors to wedding ceremonies in response to Fussell’s decision to close the courthouse wedding chapel, points out that there are a lot of people who care about LGBT and social justice issues, but they don’t vote.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if [Fussell] gets re-elected in spite of everything,” Farquhar says.

He makes a valid point. For a city that has so much going for it and — from the right cross streets — practically teems with artists, liberals and even the big, bad queers, Jacksonville is like a beautiful boy without a brain in his head: great to look at, but don’t ask him anything serious because he’ll just bat his pretty eyelashes and say something about the weather.

And like that pretty Peter Pan in sequined speedos, Jacksonville should be serious about serious things. Like freedom. And equality. Because they matter. And those who would fight for freedom, like Mead and Eddy, aren’t going to let anyone, not the church, not the clerk of courts, not City Council, not a windbag on a street corner, tell them any different. But they’ll only make a difference with a little help from their friends (and allies).

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