In Washington State this past year, 17 percent of all marriages were between same-sex partners. Gay marriage became legal in the state just over a year ago.
Most of couples marrying there are from Washington. But the second most represented state is Oregon, where the state’s constitution bars gay marriage.
Since the federal Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, marriage license applications in Clark County, just over the Oregon-Washington border, have skyrocketed. While marriage application licenses usually taper off after summer months, Clark County’s have remained steady. This may be because couples from all over the country are trying to meet a December 31 deadline for tax benefits.
This is the story of an Oregon couple racing against another kind of deadline. They were married in Washington last week after more than 60 years together.
The waiting room at Clark County Courthouse is packed with smartly dressed couples.
Most of the couples are gay or lesbian. They’re waiting to be married by a judge, and many of them are likely trying to beat a December 31 deadline for tax benefits, since the IRS now recognizes all legal marriages.
But one couple that made the rainy trek is trying to meet a different kind of deadline.
Eric Marcoux and Eugene Woodworth have been together since they the day they met in Chicago in 1953.
“I am here today to be legally married to Eugene Woodworth, with whom I have had an intimate deeply committed relationship for a little over sixty years,” Marcoux says.
Marcoux is 83 years old and Woodworth is 85.
They can’t marry in Oregon, where a constitutional amendment outlaws same-sex marriage. Still, when same-sex marriage was legalized in Washington last year, they didn’t rush across the state line to get married.
“We wanted to have it in Oregon,” Woodworth explains.
Since then, however, Woodworth has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and has been given only weeks to live. They’re getting married today with the hope that Marcoux might be eligible to receive social security benefits as the surviving spouse.
“We’ve observed federal government extending privileges. Then it occurred to us, ‘Well, maybe we’ll be able to transfer his social security, which is significantly greater than mine, to me,” says Marcoux. “And although it’s a modest one, it will make an enormous difference in the kind of life that I will be able to leave – live! – and leave.”
“He deserves it after living with me for sixty years,” Woodworth says.
“Maybe we should unpack that,” Marcoux jokes.
Because of a patchwork of federal and state laws, it’s still unclear whether Marcoux will be eligible to receive this partner’s social security benefits. The federal Social Security Administration requires that a couple be
legally married and reside in a state where their marriage is recognized.
Supporters of gay marriage in Oregon have been gathering signatures for a 2014 ballot measure to overturn the state’s constitutional bar on same-sex marriage, but those signatures still need to be submitted and verified. Once that happens, Oregonians would need to vote on it.
But Woodworth says he can’t wait to see how the political process plays out.
“It looks like they’re not going to do it until later in the year, and I won’t be here then, so.”
When a court clerk calls their names, two friends who will serve as witnesses help the elderly men to a counter for final signatures, and then to the courtroom where they wait for the judge. Woodworth is wheeled in; today is his first time in a new wheelchair.
A chipper woman with blonde hair enters the room.
“Ok, Eric and Eugene come right up here,” she says. “Are you ok to stand?”
“It just takes him a minute,” Marcoux replies. “He’s not going to die on you, I promise.”
Marcoux and Woodworth make their way to front of the courtroom. They stand opposite the judge and rest their hands on the podium. The only guests in the courtroom are their two witnesses.
The judge begins the ceremony, which seems written for a couple just beginning their lives together.
“And at this time, Eric, if you would take the ring for Eugene and slip it on his finger, and as you do so, repeat after me: With this ring as a symbol of my love, I thee wed.”
The couple said that today’s ceremony was just a formality, but Woodworth chokes up as the ring he’s worn for years is slipped back onto his finger by his partner.
“You’re going to have us crying,” he tells the judge.
Woodworth then repeats the vows as he puts a ring on Marcoux’s finger. The judge continues.
“And now by the power vested in me by the state of Washington, I declare you to be legally married,” says the judge. “And you may kiss.”
The two guests applaud, and Woodworth and Marcoux step back from the podium.
“We’ve been married twice before in religious ceremonies,” Woodworth tells the judge. “But we met sixty years ago, and this is the first legal thing. It’s such a pity that we had to wait that long.”
After signing the marriage documents, the two make their way out to their car for the 20-minute drive home to Oregon.
Marcoux gets in the car and shuts the door.
“We made it,” he says with a sigh. “Wonderful! We made it.”