GREENSBORO — William Early and James Sims have had their wedding rings for 13 years, but couldn’t legally marry in North Carolina.
So they waited.
“We pay taxes, we own property, and we were going to get married in the state that we lived in,” William Early said.
On Friday, just hours after learning that it was legal for same-sex couples to marry in North Carolina, Early and Sims stood in the Guilford County Register of Deeds office and tearfully exchanged vows.
“We sealed the deal years ago in our heads and in our hearts,” Sims said afterward. “It just took today for the state to catch up with us.”
News quickly spread Friday evening that U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. in Asheville had just struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
In Greensboro, couples, families and friends packed into the Guilford County Register of Deeds office to apply for marriage licenses, and in many cases say, “I do.”
Employees processed about 25 applications, and at least 14 marriages took place by the time the office closed.
Mac and Linda Stroup, knew many of the couples through their work with Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays, a support group. They stood as witnesses for Randy Gooch and Paul Musick, who married Friday. And they watched other couples take vows, according to Linda Stroup.
Chris Sgro, the executive director of Equality NC was 15 when he told his mother he was gay. Martha Sgro cried herself to sleep that night, she recalled Friday night.
Her tears were not because her son was gay, she said, but because she thought he would never get married.
But on Friday, she cried for a different reason. She, husband Michael, son Philip and daughter Mary, stood with their arms around each other as they watched Sgro and his partner, Ryan Butler, apply for a marriage license.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” Martha Sgro said as the couple completed their paperwork. “This trumps anything in my life.”
Ronnie and Lem Stanley, as they’re now known, didn’t hesitate when they heard the news shortly after 5 p.m.
“We just jumped in the car and came,” Ronnie Stanley said.
Both men said they didn’t believe they would be able to get married in their lifetimes, or maybe not before they were elderly. But Friday night, just hours after driving to Greensboro from High Point, they were officially husbands.
Both wore jeans and superhero T-shirts — Ronnie’s decorated with Superman and Lem’s with Batman — as they said their vows, kissed and hugged.
The Rev. Ches Kennedy told them the marriage would be official that night.
“You can finally stop living in sin,” Kennedy joked.
The two have been together for 10 years and engaged for six. They already had wedding bands, made of titanium with a black line through the middle. They said they plan to exchange rings today, and eventually celebrate with family and friends.
“I feel like I’m a part of something bigger now in regards to what’s happened here in the state and what’s happened to the two of us,” Lem Stanley said. “It just feels like we’ve taken our relationship to a new level, and that’s part of something bigger, too.”
They and the other couples made history.
“That’s the part that I think hasn’t really sunk in,” Lem Stanley said.
The Rev. Julie Peeples of Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro conducted wedding ceremonies for several couples Friday, including Michelle Giorgi and Karen Madrone.
After four years, Giorgi and Madrone had a ceremony in April but not a legal marriage. Madrone was in the crowd waiting this week at the register of deeds office for word on a marriage ruling.
She went home disappointed Friday afternoon after learning that a decision might not come until Monday. She had just gotten home and let the dog out when she heard about Cogburn’s ruling.
Giorgi and Madrone’s marriage ceremony closed with applause and whoops. Giorgi smiled broadly, while Madrone jumped up and down.
Both women said now they have the same legal rights as any other couple.
“This is the end of the discrimination,” Madrone said.
Some may still have their issues with gay marriage, and that’s fine, she said.
“But we have a legal piece of paper that says we are committed and tied to each other no matter what anybody says.”
Marrying Sims was a particularly emotional experience for Early. He was diagnosed with an advanced stage of throat cancer three years ago.
“Jim saw me through it, and I lived,” Early said.
Now, he’s cancer-free and doing better, he said.
“I can never doubt his love because I know what he did for me when I was so sick,” Early said of Sims. “That’s one of the reasons I was so emotional, because I lived to see it.”
Staff Writer Jonnelle Davis and Staff Photographer Lynn Hey contributed to this report.