Erica Vargas and Litcatzin Yoakum's eyes ran with tears as Lori Renee spoke about the recognition that marriage would bring to the bond that already exists between them.
“I can’t wait to spend our lives together, grow old together and raise these crazy kids together,” Vargas told her wife as their daughters — toting roses — surrounded them.
Temperatures in the courtyard outside the Kern County Clerk’s office were already soaring up through the 80s on Monday morning as a stream of couples came out two-by-two from the clerk’s offices with marriage licenses in hand.
A swarm of local media circled around the couples as a collection of clergy, supporters, family and friends prepared to celebrate.
Vargas and Yoakum were the first to be married in Kern County on Monday as same-sex weddings resumed after a four-and-a-half-year ban imposed by the passage of the passage of Proposition 8 in November 2008.
Renee — who was married to local LGBTQ Chair Whitney Weddell on June 17, 2008 — blessed their marriage and Vargas and Yoakum kissed and shared a fierce hug that lingered while family cheered through tearful eyes.
Today, Yoakum said, the pair’s hearts were filled with love and joy as well another emotion.
Yoakum said she felt “victorious.”
She said she knew she would one day be able to have her marriage recognized by the law.
But waiting, and the repeated disappointments as the churning legal system ground toward last week’s final decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, were painful.
The couple were ready to marry in August 2010, as soon as California Supreme Court Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
They were standing inside the Kern County Clerk’s office that day, hoping they could apply for a marriage license, when they learned the case would move to a federal appeals court without a window where marriages could be legal.
The pair collapsed into each others’ arms that day, too. They were crying together then, as they did Monday.
But the tears were tears of loss and heartbreak.
“It was heart-wrenching,” Yoakum said. “Another (moment) where you were second class.”
The couple got married anyway, just a few months later, in a big ceremony at the Bakersfield Museum of Art. It just wasn’t recognized by the government.
Yoakum and Vargas call it their illegal marriage, with a touch of pride and defiance. Now they’re legal.
“It’s been such a long battle,” Yoakum said.
The bouquets were not ordinary. For one, there were no flowers. The two homemade silk-material bouquets are made up of colorful pins and elegant broaches that family and friends donated to brides Rachelle Hunt and Jennifer Arnold last year at their wedding.
Today, the bouquets stand for union and a long-term family treasure that will tell the story of the day 37-year-old Hunt and 44-year-old Arnold were among the first same-sex marriage couples to legally get married in Bakersfield.
“We knew there was love just beyond our friendship when we met in 2004 so standing here today with this certificate is historical and just an amazing feeling,” Hunt said as squeezed her wife’s hand tightly.
Arnold and Hunt were one of at least seven couples that tied the knot Monday morning at the county clerk’s office. Long-stem red roses were passed out to every couple as they waited patiently for the doors to open at 8:30 a.m. sharp.
Holding hands and with smiles on their faces, Steven Marquez, 26 and Dustin Marquez, 24, were the first couple to enter the office and sign in.
“We have been together for a little over five years and we have been waiting for this day to come since forever,” Steven said.
Like Vargas and Yoakum, they were waiting in the County Clerk’s office in 2010 — and were disappointed.
Before Monday, Steven felt he could express his relationship with Dustin freely but when it came to the idea of wanting to get married, he always felt hushed.
“When we would file our taxes we always had to put single and that just didn’t feel right, it was a slap in the face,” Dustin said. “We do matter and count just like everybody else.”
When the couple met in 2008 at Target, they knew it was love at first sight. At the time, Steven was working as a cashier and Dustin approached Steven and they felt a spark in that short interaction, they both said.
“I went home with the cashier,” Dustin said, laughing.
Once inside the office, Dustin and Steven signed documents, raised their right hand and in unison agreed to the marriage oath.
“That is the last time I will ever sign with Peterson,” Dustin said, referring to his last name change to Marquez.
Outside in the courtyard, couples had their own pastors and reverends perform a small ceremony where they said their vows and exchanged rings.
Valerie Carlson, 33, pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, was in tears as she talked about Dustin and the love and bond she had witnessed grow between them.
“When we heard that they were going to be able to get married, we cried in celebration but did pre-marital counseling right away and just did everything possible to get them ready for today,” Carlson said. “It’s beautiful to see them so happy and now they just need to plan a big church wedding.”
JUST AS STRONG
Kathi Briefer-Gose watched with a certain, special joy as Vargas and Yoakum wed.
“The emotions are just as strong as before,” she said.
Just over five years ago Kathi and her wife, Karen, were the first same-sex couple in Kern County to say their vows. They were standing on the very stage where the younger couple shared theirs Monday.
How did she feel?
“It’s almost hard to describe,” she said, “the emotions are so much bigger than the every day.”
Briefer-Gose said she was especially glad to serve as a witness for a couple who planned to move on Tuesday to Kansas, where the marriages are not legal.
They were able to get married Monday, however, and will take their federally recognized marriage with them thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision last week to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
How have the last five years been for Briefer-Gose and her wife?
“Same as anybody’s married lives. We have our little spats. We do fun things together,” she said.
A steady stream of couples came in for their licenses early Monday but, by about 10:30 a.m. as temperatures climbed into the 90s, the marriages tapered off.
The television cameras and photographers left to file thier stories and photos.
And — in that quiet moment — Lori Renee climbed back up on the stage.
This time it was as a wife, not an officiant.
She and her wife, Whitney, renewed their marriage vows — five years after they first made them.
Then they and a few officiants, photographers and supporters camped out in the county cafeteria and helped as, one by one, more couples came in to claim their licenses and get married. By the end of the day, Weddell estimated, there had been 21 ceremonies.
Staff at the clerk’s office said 43 marriage licenses had been issued, but wouldn’t speculate about how many of those were for same-sex couples.
The mercury stood around 104 degrees when the final couple of the day, Juan Becerra-Medrano and Juan Medrano-Becerra, said their vows and exchanged rings while their daughter Jaseline Medrano, 4, played with leaves that had dropped from the roses they held.
Like many others, the pair plan to have a bigger celebration “in a few weeks.” Medrano-Becerra, who dreams of being a baker, will make his own wedding cake.
But after nearly eight years together they simply couldn’t wait.
“It’s the first day,” Becerra-Medrano said. “We wanted to do it today.”