GREENSBORO — At Starbucks before church Sunday morning, a woman approached Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen and asked if that was his “kid with the McDonald’s bag.”
Thigpen knew right away what she was talking about.
“She was weeping,’” said Thigpen, 43, who, while telling the story, is fighting back tears. “And, she said, ‘Thank you.’”
The woman was referring to Thigpen reopening his office last Friday with a bag of fastfood in his hand and his young son tagging along after a federal judge ruled against the ban on same-sex marriages in North Carolina.
Some couples married in the open spaces of his office surrounded by family and friends.
Thigpen was among three out of 100 registers of deeds across the state that issued licenses immediately after the judge’s ruling.
Some of Guilford’s county commissioners criticized him for doing so, while wondering how much reopening the office had cost the county.
Two of the registrars who did so are Democrats, including Thigpen. Another is a Republican. All are elected.
“This judicial order has been the most significant order impacting register of deeds offices in our history,” Thigpen said mid-morning Monday.
Nearby, a steady stream of same-sex couples seated at kiosks filled out paperwork so they could marry.
“The moment created an extraordinary situation. I did the best I could.”
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That Thigpen is in tears as he tells the story of the woman at Starbucks is no surprise to anyone who knows him.
“That’s the kind of heart he’s got,” said Alfred “Chip” Marble, an assisting Episcopal bishop of North Carolina, who lunches with Thigpen.
Back when he was five, his 41-year-old father, Thomas, lost a leg in a farming accident in Burgaw and stayed in the hospital for nearly a year. When he got out, Thigpen’s mother, Geraldine, went blind for a year.
Thigpen is the youngest of three siblings.
“We were on the verge of losing everything,” said Thigpen, who has to take a succession of deep breaths and walk around to make his point. “There was a community there. Some of the least likely people would come over to our house to give us food and to just sit with us.”
They were black and white, poor and working class.
“They helped us deal with a tremendous amount of hardship and when I see people going through that I don’t care who they are,” Thigpen said. “It grabs me.”
Thigpen attended Guilford College on a baseball scholarship and later earned a master’s degree in public affairs from UNCG. He was elected to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners in 1998 at age 27. At the time, he was the youngest person ever to serve.
In 2004, he was elected register of deeds, an office that deals with vital records. He is a father and husband and has appeared on MSNBC for efforts to help homeowners caught up in the mortgage crisis.
When he gets involved in people’s lives, he gives it his all. A couple of years ago he wrote the eulogy for one of the plaintiffs in a marriage lawsuit he had filed involving Medicaid benefits.
“He is a person that believes to his bones in equality. When something’s not fair — whatever that something is — he’s the kind of person who's going to fix it,” said Larry Conrad, the office’s assistant director.
While his actions are led by his conscience, he is a stickler for the law and his oath to abide by it.
In September 2013, local same-sex couples showed up at the register of deeds office to apply for marriage licenses as part of a national campaign to protest the ban on gay marriage across the South. A year earlier, North Carolina voters had approved Amendment One, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
The couples wanted Thigpen to follow the lead of a Pennylvania registrar who was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing as grounds his belief that the state law there banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
Underlying legal issues the couples raised were being litigated just across the street from his office in federal court.
His voice wavered that day as he turned them down.
“This is an office that abides by the law as it is,” Thigpen told them, “and not as the law as we all might want it to be.”
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Shortly before 5 p.m. on Friday, Thigpen and his top two deputies peered from an office window down on the gathering crowd below.
It was a mix of clergy, public officials and same-sex couples — some with their children.
Across Market Street, U.S. District Judge William L. Osteen Jr. was considering whether to allow top state Republican officials to join the case, something that would certainly extend a ruling that many had been awaiting since Wednesday.
After Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling not to hear appeals from five states wanting to keep their bans on same-sex marriage, legal observers thought Osteen could strike down Amendment One at any time.
On Wednesday, gay-rights advocates were urging those who sought licenses to get down to their local register of deed’s office.
That didn’t happen Wednesday. Or Thursday. Or before the end of the business day Friday, as some of the couples kept coming back.
On Friday, interactions took over Thigpen’s day.
The stream of media, poised to document the issuance of one of the first same-sex marriage licenses in the state.
The calls from those who not only asked when they might wed, but poured out stories about decades together that meant nothing in the eyes of the law where they lived.
The back and forth between other register of deeds on strategy if the the state Department of Health and Human Resources hadn’t released updated paperwork. Thigpen allowed those couples to go ahead and fill out the paperwork listing them as “Bride” and “Groom,” which staff would update by hand if the gender-neutral paperwork using “Applicant 1” and “Applicant 2” was unavailable.
Also, too, were the conversations with his staff, some of whom because of their religious convictions, were having trouble with the idea of processing the paperwork so two people of the same sex could wed. For the time being, Thigpen gave them other work that had to be done.
“I think it speaks to what kind of man he is,” said Debbie Johnson, Thigpen’s deputy director. “He could have said you are not fulfilling your oath. He understands that some people are struggling with this.”
Before locking the door to his office Friday, he greeted those outside, asked them to hold hands and then said a prayer.
“I knew that there were so many broken hearts,” Thigpen said.
He was ordering at a fast food drive-thru just minutes later when he got the news that another federal judge in Asheville had overturned the ban.
He called around to see if any of his staff would come back. Couples and others, he was told, were still lingering outdoors.
And the crowd was growing.
“I was visiting a friend, and when I heard it on the news, I said my phone is going to ring in about five seconds,” Johnson recalled. “He said, ‘How much do you love me?’ I said, ‘I’m coming in.’”
The eight who showed up, including Thigpen, got several standing ovations as they set up. Men wept and women held onto partners of as long as 30 years.
“I don’t know where they are on this, but they followed their oath and they followed me here,” Thigpen said.
His son, who he promised a toy from Target once the night was over, played happily amongst the couples.
His staff helped 24 couples get licenses — despite the lights going out, the computer server freezing and a street preacher who showed up to warn them that they were going against the Bible.
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On Monday, the office had issued 35 marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Guilford County by the end of the day, which was just four fewer than the record to date by heterosexual couples.
Outdoors, Brandie Cline and Brenna Ragghianti handed many of them bouquets of flowers the fiancees had purchased using their own money. They also volunteered to serve as witnesses for those who took up the Revs. Jac and Liz Grimes offer to marry them for free on the lawn next to the building.
“We just love each other,” said Ronald Williams, who carried a bouquet of flowers upstairs where he and his would-be groom took out a license on their 36th anniversary. “I never thought it would even happen.”
Several Republican county commissioners were still questioning Thigpen’s authority to reopen the office after it had closed Friday. They also questioned the cost.
While employees who showed up all volunteered, Guilford County must still pay about $165 in overtime because of labor laws. The rest of the employee time will be absorbed through “flex time” within the next pay period, consistent with the county’s human resources policy.
Still, the office collected $1,634 in fees from issuing about 24 marriage licenses on Friday, according to numbers compiled Monday by the office.
Some of the email Thigpen received chastised him for what he had done.
Thigpen said the response, however, was overwhelmingly positive.
“My hope is that in time, that everyone will ... agree we can disagree,” Thigpen said. “We’ll get through the next couple of weeks. Then after that, all of this will settle down and everyone will go about their lives.”
The number of same-sex couples applying for a marriage license in Guilford and surrounding counties since Friday: