WASHINGTON (AP) — Glen Dehn and Charles Blackburn steered clear of festive election night parties, opting to watch the returns from their Baltimore home for fear Maryland voters would reject the right of same-sex couples to wed.
Turns out, there was nothing to worry about.
With voters approving a ballot question legalizing same-sex marriage, wedding plans that were once hypothetical suddenly morphed into reality.
Gay couples such as Dehn and Blackburn, who have been together for 34 years, are now planning to wed and reap not only equal civil rights but the legal benefits that come through marriage. A casual marriage proposal Wednesday between the men, popped in half-jest many times before, carried practical significance for a couple denied for decades the right to wed. Blackburn said the significance of the vote hadn’t fully sunk in, but that he and Dehn were already looking toward a February church wedding in Baltimore.
‘‘I just think it'll be so special to be recognized as a member of society, a committed relationship in society,’’ said Blackburn, who is 79. He and Dehn are among the couples who sued in 2004 to legalize gay marriage in the state, and though a judge initially ruled in their favor, the decision was later reversed by an appeals court.
The weddings will take place starting Jan. 1. It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the thousands of gay couples in Maryland planned to marry or who might be first, and there'll no doubt be logistical questions, such as clearing up gender-specific language, to resolve before then.
‘‘I'm still kind of trying to wrap my brain around the whole thing,’’ said Patty Bilbro, 38, who had a commitment ceremony with her partner several years ago but plans to marry her as soon as possible for legal protections. ‘‘This is more about the legal aspect of marriage for us.’’
Advocates, reveling in the broad geographic support same-sex marriage received at the ballot box Tuesday, said the vote reflected a national surge in acceptance and credited the efforts of a diverse coalition that included labor and religious groups and Gov. Martin O'Malley. The governor signed a same-sex marriage law in March, but opponents collected enough signatures to force a referendum and put the decision with state residents. The Maryland Marriage Alliance, which opposes gay marriage, said it respected the results and would continue working to ensure that children have a mother and father.
The pitched, months-long debate even reached into professional sports when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo publicly proclaimed his staunch support of gay marriage.
‘‘I'm so stoked. It’s like I woke up and it’s Christmas,’’ Ayanbadejo said Wednesday.
Among those celebrating the referendum was Chyrino Patane, 33, who said he planned to marry James Trinidad, his partner of seven years, in a ceremony in Maryland, where Trinidad was born.
‘‘It’s very progressive, it’s open. Plus it’s one of the newest states that have accepted same-sex marriage, so we would like to do it in this state,’’ said Patane, who lives in Wheaton.
For some couples, the urgency of the fight was eased by the legalization of gay marriage in the neighboring District of Columbia. That’s where Lisa Polyak wed her partner, Gita Deane, last year after the couple — once plaintiffs in the Maryland case — decided they couldn’t wait for the state to act. She said even though she’s already married, with two children, the vote helped legitimize her relationship.
‘‘Now their parents are married and the citizens of Maryland are willing to say, ‘Yep, we recognize that. We honor that relationship,'’’ Polyak said. ‘‘That’s a powerful message for my children.’’
The legalization could affect thousands of residents. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law reported more than 12,000 same-sex couples live in Maryland.
Couples apply for marriage licenses in the counties where they plan to wed, but the state — which issues copies of wedding certificates and other vital records— was reviewing its documents to remove any gender-specific references, said Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The application for a certified copy of a wedding certificate, for instance, currently asks for the name of the groom and the bride’s maiden name.
Besides Maryland, people of Maine passed same-sex marriage by popular vote while Minnesota voters defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned the unions in the state. Washington state appeared on the verge of legalizing same-sex marriage, though slow ballot counting was holding up the official results.
‘‘Clearly what we’re seeing in part is the march of history. This issue has been steadily gaining public support at an incredibly rapid clip,’’ said David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. ‘‘If you had told us five years ago that we would be here today — if you had told anyone five years ago that we would be here today — I think many people would have been, and in fact were, extremely skeptical.’’
David Ginsburg contributed to this report from Owings Mills, Md.
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