A Postcard from Palm Springs: City Hosts First Annual Marriage Celebration

Hard on the heels of the California Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, we received a Thursday afternoon invitation from the Palm Springs Tourist board to attend its First Annual Celebration of Marriage.
(From top to bottom) Mayor Steve Pougnet and volunteers plan ceremony. Pougnet after Ceremony. Jeff Lechleiter and Mark Wade. Daria and Jeane Oksama. Photos by E.B. Boatner

Tossing together a few Tommy Bahamas and other resort paraphernalia, we were on a flight Friday morning, and, in mere hours, were being snugged by co-owners Stephen Boyd and Michael Green into a suite in their walled, gardened, and pooled Triangle Inn.

Saturday evening (June 21, Summer Solstice), a crowd of families, friends, and general well-wishers thronged Downtown Palm Springs’s La Plaza, while every gay or lesbian couple with a wedding license who wished to participate signed in to be married in the Enchanted Garden Wedding Chapel.

Honoring the sanctity and dignity of the occasion, only the brides, grooms, and wedding parties were allowed into the chapel areas where Mayor Steve Pougnet, Mayor Pro-Tem Ginny Foat, City Council Member Rick Hutcheson, and City Clerk James Thompson (all of whom are gay) performed weddings nonstop from 6 to 10 PM.

Later, the darkness was punctuated with singing, shouting, speeches, and entertainment from the grandstand, elated newlyweds, family, and friends lending their voices.

One wedding party member bade me take a photo of Jeff Lechleiter and Mark Wade, announcing, “My name is Bob Ward, and I’m the brother-in-law law of those two, who just got married. I’m proud to know people of this character—it’s wonderful to see them have their night.”

I’m not sure what I expected of a marriage celebration in what one respondent called a gay Mayberry, but talking to the newlyweds, I found myself deeply moved by their testimonies, as well as struck by their very ordinariness.

Mike Knollhoff and Roger Fisher of Desert Springs, who exchanged rings eight years ago, felt “elated—just elated.”

In Knollhoff’s words, “It allowed us to finalize what we started eight years ago [come July 24]. This is the final, the legal step.”

The effect of the new law on California and the rest of the country?

As Knollhoff opines, “We’ll have to find out in November for sure, but I really don’t think the people of California will take this away. I hope to see this snowball. Anybody who wants to come get married—just like anybody else, we’re people.”

Fisher added, “I was frankly shocked that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t get out, and try to shoot it down. And, not only does it legitimize our relationship, but I think a lot of the naysayers will realize that our marriage doesn’t affect theirs. I don’t think Armageddon’s at hand. I don’t think the sun’s going to crash into the earth.”

Jeremy Rasmussen and his husband, Shawn Evans, had a similar take.

“Exciting,” Rasmussen echoed. “I think it’s a good step forward. It’s much welcomed, and I hope that many states follow through. With California leading the way, I think maybe in five, ten years, we can all do it.”

As to this coming November, Evans urged, “We want everyone to vote no. If it does appear on the ballot, we really would encourage everyone to vote no. That’s the biggest gift we could ever ask for.”

Daria and Jeane Oksama were wreathed in smiles, as the former shared their story: “We’ve been engaged for 14 years, and we finally get to do it, and it’s legal. We have the freedom to get married, and we’re very excited about that.”

To those not yet free, Daria offers, “I hope that [these marriages] will take away the fear that people have, or the perception that everyone who is gay is flamboyant or odd. We’re just normal people that love each other. I want to say that I marched in the first Gay Pride parade in New York City when I was 15 years old. And now, to be able to marry the person that I am in love with, and dedicated to, and to see that in my lifetime, I am so grateful.”

Thomas Van Etten, wreathed in orchids and enveloped in a hug by old friend Michael Green, exclaimed, “I’ve been partnered for 40 years with Robert Van Etten. I took his last name in 1975 to make a political statement about same-sex marriage.”

And tonight?

Van Etten enthused, “Oh, my God, it is sheer happiness and joy—sheer joy in the fact that we are celebrating equal rights with everybody else. And I do think that’s what other people are going to see—that people of long-standing [relationships], regular folks, people with normal lives, are getting married. Oh, my darling, it’s going to say that we are no different than anyone else. Our love is the same as everybody else’s.”

The last to emerge from the chapel were Jeff Lawson and Greg Dilger, defying the 100+-degree heat in tuxes and red carnation boutonnières.

“I think it’s great,” Lawson commented. “It makes up for all the time that we lost, that we weren’t able to get married. [July 19 marks their 12th anniversary.] It’s a time to catch up to everybody else, and to actually show that a gay couple can last.”

Dilger added, “I think it’s the natural progression of things. When African Americans and white people couldn’t marry, it took time, and this is the beginning of the change in [our] time. I don’t think it’s as momentous a change as people maybe think it is.”

“I think that people will realize that we’re all just people,” Lawson continued, “and we all have people we love, and why should either law or something that’s man-made stop people from loving each other in a legal sense? When there are so many unmarried people, so many divorces—when you think about it, why deny marriage to a growing segment of the population?”

A smiling Pougnet, flushed with the evening’s success, confided, “When I’m marrying two people who’ve known each other and lived together, and they look into each other’s eyes, and say, “I love you,” well, there are a lot of other issues in this world that people need to worry about. Marriage isn’t one of them. When you see all this unconditional love, it’s just wonderful. That can spread from here to other places, in California—into Minneapolis, Minnesota, and all over. That’s the message.”

Feeling the urge? Check out www.palm-springs.org.

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