A welcoming place for a wedding

By Laurie Loisel for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, published June 24, 2010

June 7 was a breezy, warm, spring day, just the kind brides dream about.

Sarah Andrews and Cheryl Barber from Willoughby, Ohio, got married that day in a simple ceremony on the top of Mount Holyoke in South Hadley.

They don't have roots here. They didn't know anybody here. They'd never even been to Northampton. They chose Northampton, and asked a Northampton minister to help them because they'd heard this was a place they'd be welcomed. The welcome they received far surpassed their expectations.

"It was tough to leave, really," said Andrews, 64.

Andrews and Barber are among 36 same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses in Northampton this year, 18 of whom were from out-of-state. Last year, according to Northampton City Clerk Wendy Mazza, out of 349 couples to file intentions to get married, 128 were same-sex couples. Of those, 51 were from Massachusetts and 77 were from out of state. Here is one of their stories.

Andrews, assistant dean and faculty member in the social work school at Case Western Reserve University, and Barber, a therapist, 56, have been together since 2000. Three years later they held a holy union ceremony on June 7, 2003, at the East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Kirtland, Ohio.

When they began talking last year about how to mark their 10th anniversary, they agreed that getting legally married - which can be done now by gay and lesbian couples in five states - would be a meaningful way to celebrate.

"Probably like any couple that loves one another as deeply as we love one another, as years go on your love deepens and becomes more rich and you understand in a deeper way the vows that you took and the promises that you made to one another," said Barber.

"In addition to the spiritual piece, becoming wed is also a statement and it's a claim to what's rightfully ours," she said. "We wanted to do this for one another, and we wanted to do this because it's our right."

Andrews and Barber arrived in Northampton on the evening of Thursday, June 3, so they could go to the city clerk's office Friday morning to file their marriage intentions and wait the required time before the June 7 ceremony.

At the clerk's office in City Hall, they were pleasantly surprised at how easy it all was.

"We stood there and noticed that right beside us were the rules and regulations about dog licenses," said Andrews "It didn't seem to be a big deal except for the fact that to a person, people were kind and generous and congratulated us."

Even before they left Ohio, they'd secured a minister to officiate, through an email correspondence and then a three-way phone conversation with the Rev. Janet Bush of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. Bush said she typically doesn't perform weddings for people who aren't part of the Main Street congregation, but she made an exception.

"I was very much in sympathy with their wanting to not only be married in spirit but legally," said Bush. "Our laws and our customs are part of the interconnected web of existence, and so I do think they have legitimate and symbolic meaning."

The wedding itself was brief and simple, attended only by the linen-clad couple and the minister. They found a spot under some trees away from the Summit House looking out over the Connecticut River.

As schoolchildren on a field trip traipsed by, hushing themselves without being told when they spotted the ceremony going on, Barber and Andrews pledged their commitment to each other with a beaming Bush looking on.

"The three of us stood there with tears in our eyes," said Barber. "We were all just overcome. It was a holy moment, it was profound, it was joyful, it was sober."

"It was beautiful to see how important it was to them," said Bush.

Afterwards the three went out for lunch at Sylvester's Restaurant.

Andrews and Barber said they were repeatedly touched by people's reactions. When people learned they were tourists, the couple said, they inquired what brought them to town.

"They would say 'Oh, that's wonderful' - we had that conversation over and over again," said Andrews. "We were so grateful to the people of Northampton."

Six years after gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts - and six years after Barber and Andrews took vows in Ohio before 75 friends and family (followed by "a lovely catered reception that people are still talking about," said Andrews), the couple was legally wed.

Their return to Ohio was not without sadness, because their marriage holds no standing. "As soon as we crossed the state lines and were back in Ohio, Cheryl was a single woman and I was a divorced woman," said Andrews.

In a telephone interview last week, I asked the couple if they feel different now that they are legally married. They responded the way married couples often do, with gentle interruptions of confirmation and validation.

"I think we do," said Barber. "Yeah," interjected Andrews.

"Because we keep saying to each other we're married, we're married," (Barber.) "Yeah." (Andrews.)

"It's wonderful." (Barber). "Yeah." (Andrews.)

The union of Sarah Andrews and Cheryl Barber has been blessed by two ministers, a multitude of friends, family and even strangers. It has the legal backing of the state of Massachusetts, and most important, it embodies the truth of their own hearts.

Meanwhile, the state they were raised in, where they fell in love, hold productive jobs, own a home and pay taxes, won't recognize any of that.