Thirty years ago, Jim Sherman’s life changed forever.
He was working for the state of California and living in a church rectory in San Francisco, Calif., when he was convinced by a friend to attend a spiritual group for gay men.
There he met Michael Ferri.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. The two sat next to each other but in a confusing case of mistaken identity, Ferri thought Sherman was involved with a mutual friend and that he had been cheating on him with an anonymous doctor.
Later, when Ferri was asked if he wanted to give Sherman his number, his impression of the man sunk and he thought, “the nerve.” Of course it was all soon cleared up and the two hit it off.
“That’s how it started and we’ve been together ever since,” Ferri said.
Just not legally.
While their relationship has withstood the test of three decades, their commitment will become official for the first time this Sunday when the two men, along with nine other couples, marry in a private ceremony in Langley.
Many of those couples, including Sherman and Ferri, were at the Island County Courthouse Thursday morning making history as the first gay couples to purchase marriage licenses on Whidbey Island.
Referendum 74, which was passed this November and upheld same-sex marriage in Washington, went into effect Thursday. According to the Seattle Times, more than 200 couples were in line at the recorder’s office in King County at midnight to get their marriage licenses.
Although Island County was far less busy, Langley residents Grethe Cammermeyer and Diane Divelbess, one of the most famous gay couples in the country, added to their legacy by becoming the county’s first couple to get a marriage license.
Their story has been made famous by a major motion picture that detailed Cammermeyer’s legal challenge of her involuntary discharge from the Washington National Guard in 1992 for admitting she was a lesbian.
Cammermeyer, who went on to fight for years to end the military’s controversial “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy, is also a Whidbey General Hospital commissioner.
For them, being legally allowed to get a marriage license after a 25-year relationship was no small thing.
“There is a legitimization of our existence that’s difficult to explain,” Cammermeyer said.
“If I want to hold Diane’s hand walking down the street, I have the right to do that,” she said.
For other couples at the auditor’s office Thursday, getting their marriage licenses was important but also something of a formality. Many said they’ve been married in their hearts, and made their commitments before God, a long time ago.
“I feel like the state’s finally caught up,” said Harry Anderson, a Coupeville resident.
He and his fiance, Terry Bible, have been together since Halloween night, 1975. They moved to Whidbey a few years ago after Anderson retired from a long career in journalism and public relations.
Bible works at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Commissary/Exchange on the Seaplane Base in Oak Harbor.
Being legally married has some real-life applications that have become more important to the couple as they’ve gotten older, such as being able to establish a will and settle other financial matters to ensure their loved one is taken care of.
Many of those things are much more difficult or impossible under a civil union or some other type of partnership classification.
“I think it boils down to equality,” Bible said.
“You want to protect your partner like any married couple would,” Anderson said.
Sherman and Ferri, who are coincidentally neighbors of Anderson and Bible, feel much the same way.
“Personally, we validated our relationship years ago,” Ferri said.
They had an impromptu marriage in 1983 during a gay rights march in Washington D.C. Lacking rings, they instead traded beaded tribal Zulu pins to symbolize their commitment.
“It was exciting getting married on Constitution Avenue,” Sherman recalled.
Like Anderson and Bible, getting married again will make settling legal affairs a little easier but this is also about making a statement.
While Sherman has been more reserved and private about his life, Ferri spent years fighting on the front lines of gay-rights activism and he said he wants to make sure the message of outspoken critics, such as the late evangelical fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, aren’t passed on to the next generation.
According to Ferri, Falwell once preached that being gay meant you were not or could not contribute to the human family.
Well, Ferri said he hopes his life and now legal marriage will pass on another message, one that speaks of love, connection and equality.
“To hell with you, Jerry,” he said.
Sherman and Ferri, Anderson and Bible, and eight other couples are getting married at Cammermeyer’s house in Langley on Sunday. The private ceremony is being officiated by Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard.