PENSACOLA — From Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi, gay couples traveled to this quaint Panhandle city on Tuesday, eager to take part in a historic moment: the arrival of same-sex marriage in the Deep South.
"We came because it felt like home," said Virginia Jeffries, 30, of Foley, Ala. "And because if we waited for Alabama, we'd be waiting forever."
Jeffries and her wife, Marrekia, 28, were married on Tuesday morning in the M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building in downtown Pensacola, where same-sex couples lined up outside an hour before doors opened. They came from neighboring states untouched by the marriage equality movement and from less-welcoming territory next door — Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties —where clerks of court have chosen to stop holding courthouse weddings rather than perform them for gay couples.
Inside, Escambia County Clerk Pam Childers plugged in a boom box and, over the strains of Here Comes the Bride, began making history.
"This is the new normal," she said, after officiating the wedding of one of her employees. In all, 48 same-sex couples received marriage licenses on Tuesday in Escambia County. "We will move forward to provide the service equal to all."
Known for its sugary beaches, this Gulf Coast city, part of a stretch of North Florida sometimes dubbed the "Redneck Riviera," has long been a favorite vacation destination for rural southerners. But Pensacola is also known as the "Gay Riviera," a nickname earned for its blowout Memorial Day weekend celebrations that draw thousands of gay Floridians and southerners to Pensacola Beach, a barrier island.
It's a city of contradictions: a home to roughly 52,000 people, many deeply conservative churches and three gay bars, one of them cowboy-themed. Pensacola has its own opera company, its own art museum and a growing gay community.
Until Tuesday, when gay marriage became legal statewide, it was the only city west of Tallahassee that allowed gay couples to enter into domestic partnerships. It's also home to the Pensacola News Journal, one of the few newspapers in Florida that chose not to feature the start of gay marriages on its front page Tuesday. A local hit-and-run crash involving a police officer got higher billing.
"I have to confess, when I was first approached about coming here, I thought no way," said the Rev. Dr. Jim Merritt, who moved to Pensacola several months ago to become the senior pastor of Holy Cross Metropolitan Community Church. He married his partner of 20 years on Tuesday in one of many same-sex weddings performed at the church.
"I don't go into the closet for anybody and I haven't had any problems living my life here," he said. "It's interesting that Pensacola, with its conservative reputation, has become this bastion of equality."
Accustomed to the crowd of protesters who arrive every Memorial Day to heckle gay couples as they drive to the beach, many residents were shocked not to see people holding anti-gay signs and bearing crosses outside the courthouse.
"I asked my husband in the car on the way over, I said, 'Are you prepared to cross a picket line?' " said William Gilleran, 51, who has lived in the city for nearly a dozen years. "He said he was, but we were surprised we didn't have to."
Across town, Kim Miller, 56, scurried around the Coffee Cup, the city's iconic greasy spoon diner. A server who has lived in Pensacola for just over seven years, Miller said she's found the town uncommonly accepting of gay people, less so of biracial couples.
"It's the South," she said matter-of-factly. "And it's money. Gay people bring a lot of money to Pensacola."
A Tuesday regular at the diner, Earl Barrett, 72, and his two breakfast companions voted in favor of Florida's gay marriage ban in 2008. Look up the definition of marriage in Webster's Dictionary, they instructed, citing a core text for gay marriage opponents. (The dictionary amended the definition several years ago to include same-sex couples.)
Yet they espoused a shoulder-shrugging ethos that seems to permeate Pensacola, and sets it apart.
"I'm a Roman Catholic," Barrett said. "For me, I can see how, civilly, they have the right to the benefits of marriage. But religiously, I can't support it."
Among the gay couples who traveled to Pensacola from other states were Abbie and K.C. Jordan-Hullar, who drove four hours from Birmingham, Ala. Together for seven years, the women are expecting a baby boy in May and were eager to marry before he arrived.
It's difficult to envision Alabama, which only recently abolished its antisodomy law, ever allowing gay marriage, said K.C. Jordan-Hullar, 28.
Four years ago, she said she was fired from a job at a day care center for being a lesbian. The owner told her she was bad for business, she said. Another time, she and her wife were asked to leave a bar. "We weren't even holding hands," she said. Not that they do anyway. They don't want to invite looks.
Still, she sees signs of a progress in her home state.
"I went to a standup comedy show at the Stardome and when the guy made an antigay joke, the room went silent," she said. "You could feel the energy tense up. He was like, 'Whoa, I thought of all places that would work here.' It gave me hope."
Destiny Cummings, 21, and her wife left their home in Baton Rouge, La., at 3 a.m. for Pensacola, less than 24 hours after learning that gay marriage had come to Florida.
Baton Rouge is the "heart of the South," she said. "Why wait?"
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813)226-3354. Follow her @annamphillips.