Kathryn Hamm and Amy Walter thought they had experienced it all when it came to love, marriage, and amazing weddings - in 1999, they publicly declared their commitment to each other, and in the years since, they have heard hundreds of stories of same-sex couples who have finally been able to legally marry in their home state. As the owner of GayWeddings.com and coauthor of Capturing Love: The Art of Lesbian and Gay Wedding Photography, Kathryn has worked intimately with wedding celebrations for same-sex couples, and she and Amy, National Editor of the Cook Political Report, loved watching their friends, family members, and GayWeddings.com supporters discover the happiness and joy that marriage can bring.
But this fall, Kathryn and Amy shared in another important experience, adding a new moment to their wealth of wedding memories: They got legally married in Washington, D.C., just over 14 years after their celebration in 1999.
They were inspired to get a legal marriage license after the United States Supreme Court struck down the central part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, the law that for nearly 17 years restricted the freedom to marry to different-sex couples. The Court's ruling - and its implementation in the many federal programs that deal with marriage - cleared the way for legally married same-sex couples to access many of the protections that marriage triggers at the federal level.
Kathryn and Amy, who live in Virginia, knew that the DOMA ruling allowed the federal government to finally respect them as a legally married couple - and that even if the state of Virginia would not yet respect their love, the United States would. A few months after the ruling, the U.S. Department of the Treasury ruled that even married same-sex couples not living in states with the freedom to marry would be able to apply for its programs, and that was Kathryn and Amy's cue to pursue a legal marriage.
"In what can only be be described as an act of practical romance...we called our lawyer asking for a green light," Kathryn wrote in a personal reflection on GayWeddings.com. "Then we called our CPA asking for a green light. And they said yes! Never mind the chapel - we were going to the court house and we were going to get married."
On November 2, 2013, Kathryn and Amy gathered 160 of their friends and family members at the court house in Washington, D.C. Alongside their 7-year-old son, Kathryn and Amy re-exchanged their wedding bands, revisited their vows, and reflected on their "forever family" with a sand ceremony.
The ceremony was officiated by Judge Marisa Demeo, an openly gay judge appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010, and a longtime friend of the couple. She spoke about the role that marriage plays in U.S. society, and she read an excerpt from the landmark 2003 decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which brought the freedom to marry to Massachusetts.
When Judge Demeo declared, "I now pronounce you (finally!) legally married," all of the guests stood up and cheered as Kathryn and Amy kissed.
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Even though 2013 marked their legal marriage, Kathryn and Amy attach the most significance to their 1999 ceremony, when they declared their commitment for the first time.
"We became a married couple in 1999," Kathryn said. "It was a truly spiritual marriage - and in the eyes of our community, it was a wedding. But we needed this legal paperwork now that it was available to us."
They viewed their November wedding as more of a chance to reflect on their amazing life together - and to celebrate their family like they had never before.
"We had an opportunity to mark this occasion of becoming a family of three, and the chance to go through the legal proceedings," Kathryn said. "There is something special about standing in front of your community explaining who you are, what you stand for, and what your commitments are. It was meaningful in its own way."
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Their ceremony in 1999 was markedly different from their 2013 celebration.
"We tied the knot exceptionally well the first time," Kathryn reflected, remembering the fun and extravagant family affair.
"It's almost hard to describe what it was like in 1999," she added. "When we were preparing for the wedding, it was before gay couples could marry anywhere - before civil union, even."
Preparing for their wedding, in fact, was what inspired GayWeddings.com in the first place. Kathryn's mother Gretchen founded the website right around the time that Kathryn and Amy were planning for their celebration; it was very much a response to a lack of resources for gay and lesbian couples looking to tie the knot.
They ultimately decided on a fun weekend of activities on Labor Day weekend of 1999. The activities culminated in the wedding, as a way of merging their families and bringing everyone together.
They started the celebration with a "Bride Ride," with Kathryn and Amy donning bike jerseys and helmets with wedding veils on the back. Next, the families paired off for a croquet tournament, making sure to join up with someone they did not already know well.
"By the time we got to the ceremony, there was already this great buzz and kinship," Kathryn said. "We didn't fully appreciate what would come out of that."
The wedding itself was very important to both famiies: It was a symbol like no other - "a very clear milestone."
"The wedding really helped our families understand that our love is the same," Kathryn said. "It helped us explain, 'We can do this as well, and this is important to us as a couple, and this is a commitment we want to make to each other.'"
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Now that they are legally married, Kathryn and Amy have an additional insight into why marriage matters that they can share with the families featured on GayWeddings.com and the readers who visit the publication for inspiration and perspective.
"This was a milestone for us in the same way that it was for our other friends or has been for the site's readers," Kathryn explained.
Now, Kathryn and Amy can relate to the legal process of marriage as much as they can bond over planning a fantastic wedding celebration, making love last for two decades, and even living in a state that does not respect their commitment. In Virginia, where they have built their lives together over the last two decades, they are legally viewed as single women. They are denied the dignity, respect, and recognition that all loving couples deserve.
But as the country enters this exciting new moment in the movement to win marriage nationwide, Kathryn and Amy know that it takes families like theirs to create change. By living their lives and by sharing their love, couples like them are are setting an example for what love, family, and commitment look like in Virginia. And it's examples like them that will lead the country into a future where all couples - and all marriages - are respected equally.
Photos of 2013 wedding by Carly Fuller Photography. Photo with marriage license applicatiion by Diego M. Radzinschi of The National Law Journal.