TAMPA — Before she presided over a mass wedding ceremony Tuesday, Hillsborough Clerk of Court Pat Frank asked the dozens of gay couples how many years they had waited for the moment.
"Forty three!" said Frank. "Well, you have waited a long time."
No longer. At that park in Tampa and across Florida, wedding bells rang for same-sex couples, the result of a successful court challenge to the state's 2008 ban on gay marriages.
Eager to be part of the historic moment, some Tampa Bay area couples began lining up before dawn for licenses and marriage ceremonies.
"This is a monumental day," said Glenn Molina-Coats, 47, who married his partner of 15 years, Alberto Molina-Coats, 43, at the mass ceremony in Tampa's Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park.
The two men had an unofficial wedding ceremony in 2004 and followed that up with a civil commitment in New Jersey. But none of that meant anything in their home state .
"We wanted to have a license that says Florida," said Alberto. "This is where we should have gotten married in the first place."
Clerks, who had added staff in preparation for Tuesday, said their offices were busy but not overwhelmed. Hillsborough officials Tuesday issued about 160 marriage licenses, nearly twice as many as they issued last Valentine's Day, and far more than in Pinellas (67), Pasco (25) and Hernando (14).
Every county clerk but Pasco's also performed same-day ceremonies for many of those who got their licenses: Hillsborough (106), Pinellas (24) and Hernando (8).
In St. Petersburg, Jennifer Hasbrook, 43, and Kellie Peterson, 44, were first in line. A couple for more than three years, they said marriage would offer them legal protections and recognition. And they were giddy with joy.
"I get to say 'wifey.' I've been calling her 'my wifey' all these years," Hasbrook said. "I know that sounds ridiculous, but these things sometimes are more important than you can imagine."
Arricka Grant, the clerk's office official who presided over their ceremony, appeared on the verge of tears.
"I love being a pioneer," said Grant. "I'm a Christian and I believe that everyone is the same."
Sue Beane and Kim Ogden, who have been a couple for 17 years, exchanged vows in the field behind the West Pasco Government Center in New Port Richey, a set-up prompted by the Pasco clerk's decision to stop performing all marriages in her office.
"It's surreal," Beane, 53, said. "It's validating and affirming."
She turned to the couple's 5-year-old son, Andrew, dressed up in a blue vest and a fedora.
"Are you excited about becoming a family today?"
"Yeah!" the child shouted.
"Well, we were a family before," she corrected herself, "but now we're legal."
Technically, Marian Goodman, 59, and Margena Hinely, 57, of Clearwater were second in line at the Pinellas courthouse in Clearwater. But the couple in front of them let them go first.
Goodman and Hinely have been together 28 years and 74 days — ever since they met in 1986 at a transportation committee meeting of the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce board. They dated for about a year before moving in together and starting a hotel management company.
Goodman cried as she repeated her vows to Hinely in a tiny, private room connected to the records department, a heart-shaped wreath of flowers on the wall behind them.
"It's important to not be a second-class citizen," Goodman said.
After their ceremony, a group of snowbirds calling themselves Canadian cheerleaders burst into applause and had the couple stand in front of an equality flag for photos. George Olds and Ian Taylor, married in Canada in 2004, said it's nice not to "leave our equal rights at the door" when they move to their home in unincorporated Clearwater for the winter now.
"People are going to ask you if it feels different," Taylor told the newlyweds. "You betcha it feels different."
Back in Tampa, the park square across from the courthouse buzzed with pre-wedding activity just before noon Tuesday. Employees of Whole Foods passed out cupcakes. Women in white dresses, women in ties and men in vests and pressed slacks meandered in the sunshine.
Frank, the clerk, and Tampa police Chief Jane Castor stopped to pose for photographs. As Castor put her arms around a couple for a photo, two lone protestors closed in. "Marriage is between a man and a woman!" they yelled. "The plague is coming!" and "Repent!"
Castor and Frank ignored the men and continued to greet people. The two protesters, Frankie Solomon Sr. and Michael Woodard, got into shouting matches with some attendees and were merely laughed at by others. A transgender minister named Phoenyx Von Black trailed the two men, flaunting a Bible of her own.
As Frank approached the podium to start the ceremonies, the protesters were still yelling. Castor, who is gay, walked toward them and said quietly, "You can say what you want to, but let's let them do the ceremony."
Solomon crossed his arms. "I'm a witness to this," he said. Then he and Woodard said no more.
The couples turned to one another and repeated the vows that Frank spoke, using "first spouse" and "second spouse" instead of husband and wife.
"I now pronounce you joined in matrimony," said Frank, and the crowd erupted in applause and hoots. Women showered the crowd with rice.
Near the stage were Darrell Walker, 64, and Amander Parsons, 79, dressed in matching plaid shirts. The South Tampa couple met 36 years ago in a B. Dalton's bookstore — "Classic love story!" quipped Walker — and have been together ever since.
Walker was picking rice off Parson's shoulders and glasses. Neither man predicted the day would come, though they never stopped hoping. In some ways, they said, the ceremony seemed like a summing up of nearly four happy decades. "It kind of binds everything together," said Walker.
Parsons smiled as the last bit of rice fell from his gray hair.
Contact Jodie Tillman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @jtillmantimes.