Close your eyes and make a wish, they would tell him.
His family is singing and the candles are burning. It's rural South Carolina in the 1980s, and it's a perfectly festive birthday party for a teenager named Stratton Pollitzer.
Everything is as it should be, except for what no one can know. And so the boy of the hour keeps his secret hidden from everyone nearby.
Turns out the world can be a lonely and dangerous place for a gay teen in the conservative South, and Pollitzer feared his life was forever destined to this uneasy solitude.
So every birthday, he would silently wish for true love.
And then solemnly blow out his candles.
• • •
The wedding is scheduled to begin in Broward County at one minute past midnight on Tuesday morning, the first day same-sex marriages can take place in Florida.
Stratton Pollitzer and Christopher Boykin have been together for 21 years, and married in 1999 in a ceremony that was recognized by no one but their family and friends.
They co-parented fraternal twins, their daughter, Sarah, who is a freshman at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and their son, Ben, who is a freshman at Eckerd College.
And now, for the first time, they will officially be considered a real family.
Pollitzer, 46, eventually found the love of his life, but it still took over two decades before the state in which he lived would officially acknowledge that.
"For a child born in Florida today, gay marriage will be a normal and accepted reality,'' said Pollitzer, a deputy director for civil rights organization Equality Florida. "Children will grow up not knowing anything different, and, years from now, people will look back and wonder why this was even an issue.''
There are certain rights and protections that come with marriage certificates, and it's utterly indefensible that same-sex couples have had to wait this long to enjoy them.
All the forms and documents that will no longer mock them. The benefits and laws that have been denied to them. The simple courtesies and respects long withheld from them.
These are the tangible benefits of marriage that are about to change for gay couples, but those are mere details compared to the rest of the story.
For it can be argued that approving same-sex marriage in the eyes of City Hall is a game-changing step toward removing the stigma of a person's sexuality.
Thirty-six states now recognize that gay marriage is no better or worse than opposite-sex couplings, and that mirrors a rapidly evolving perception among Americans.
"I think it says something very positive about our culture and our society,'' said St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, who has been with partner Julie Kessel for five years. "It says we can disagree and wrestle with difficult decisions while allowing room for dissent and disagreement.
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"Yet, at the end of the day, we can still come together to make the right decision. We can agree that we don't believe in taking rights away from anyone.''
Of course, it's not quite that definitive. Laws cannot dictate what is in people's hearts, and so there will always be some who disapprove of gay marriage.
Even now, as a federal judge's ruling is about to open courthouse doors, there are county clerks in some parts of the state who will do what they can to express their displeasure.
The difference is they cannot legally treat same-sex couples differently from everyone else.
"Gay people have always grown up feeling that they are somehow lesser than everyone else because of who they love,'' said St. Petersburg City Council member Amy Foster, who came out to her family while in her 20s. "It's incredibly important to know kids growing up in the future won't have to face the same world that we did.''
It's been 30 years since Pollitzer secretly wished for someone he could love, 21 since he found that person and 15 since he proposed marriage.
Now, less than 48 hours away from the state of Florida's official recognition of his wedding, Pollitzer will recite the same opening line of the vows he wrote long ago:
"I stand before all of you today who are my family, to share with you a miracle from my life . . .''