10 years of marriage equality in NC: Asheville photo exhibit celebrates historic day

ASHEVILLE - Wives Elizabeth Eve and Kathryn "KC" Cartledge beamed at each other June 12, standing outside a downtown government building, a pride flag draped from its second-story window.

They’ve been together for 42 years and were there to “relive” the moment a decade before, waiting in that same government office, when they learned gay marriage was legally recognized in North Carolina.

Inside the building, visitors packed a narrow hall in the Buncombe County's Register of Deeds office, where a photo installation celebrated the days that led up to — and the immediate aftermath of — the 2014 ruling by a federal judge in Asheville that struck down the state's ban on gay marriage.

Many of the people in the exhibit at its June opening had helped lead the fight 10 years ago, like Eve and Cartledge, who even now can't stop smiling when they talk about it.

People view Max Cooper’s photography exhibit on marriage equality at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, June 12, 2024.
People view Max Cooper’s photography exhibit on marriage equality at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, June 12, 2024.

“I don’t think you can put into words what it feels like not to be treated equally under the law ... And to have that recognized and changed in my lifetime. I’m 80 this year. I never thought it would happen," Eve said.

Eve and Cartledge are featured in several of the exhibit's photos, the work of Asheville photographer Max Cooper, who shadowed plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that led to the ruling, and was at the Register of Deeds office Oct. 10, 2014, the moment people crowded in the lobby heard the news. The photos are kinetic and emotional: People holding one another with red-rimmed eyes and goofy grins. Parents cradling babies. Couples kissing.

Eve described it as "spontaneous joy."

“To say it was a milestone, or tremendous, is an understatement,“ Cartledge said.

KC Cartledge and Elizabeth Eve smile outside the Registrar of Deeds office in downtown Asheville, June 12, 2024.
KC Cartledge and Elizabeth Eve smile outside the Registrar of Deeds office in downtown Asheville, June 12, 2024.

The 'epicenter'

Allison Scott, director of impact and innovation with the Campaign for Southern Equality, called the office the "epicenter" of the defeat of Amendment One, the 2012 state constitutional amendment that prohibited same-sex marriage in North Carolina.

In 2014, the office was on Woodfin Street, a block away from its current location. It neighbored the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville, whose pastor was a plaintiff in the federal case filed in the Western District of North Carolina that led the historic ruling, along with other clergy and LGBTQ+ couples.

Married couple Nancy Asch, left, and Beth Heinberg catch up with Buncombe County Registrar Drew Reisinger during a reception for Max Cooper’s photography exhibit on marriage equality, June 12, 2024.
Married couple Nancy Asch, left, and Beth Heinberg catch up with Buncombe County Registrar Drew Reisinger during a reception for Max Cooper’s photography exhibit on marriage equality, June 12, 2024.

Among the defendants was Buncombe County Registrar Drew Reisinger. He was fiercely supportive of marriage equality, and worked closely with the plaintiffs in the case to secure victory, but he and his staff were barred from issuing licenses under North Carolina law.

The defeat of the ban happened, Scott said, "because people like Drew and others knew the right thing to do, even when they were being told legally they couldn't."

Of the ecstatic moment the law changed, just after 5 p.m., Oct. 10, 2014 — when Reisinger kept the doors of the Registrar's office open until 7 p.m. to begin issuing marriage licenses to waiting couples — as weddings began in the lobby, and on the front steps, he said a tremendous weight was lifted. He was among the first in the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

People celebrate the legalization of gay marriage in North Carolina right after 5 p.m. in the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. The decision led to many gay and lesbian couples receiving marriage licenses and being married on the steps of the building following the ruling. 10/10/14
People celebrate the legalization of gay marriage in North Carolina right after 5 p.m. in the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. The decision led to many gay and lesbian couples receiving marriage licenses and being married on the steps of the building following the ruling. 10/10/14

"Being forced to uphold the state’s bigoted laws was truly horrific and it’s just a horrible burden to know that you’re the one holding up something that is clearly immoral and wrong," he told the Citizen Times in June.

"It was such a wonderful night to be able to issue those licenses, and I’ll never forget it."

In the decade since, Asheville has remained an outpost, a "safe space," for LGBTQ+ couples seeking licenses, he said, but many people likely don't know "this was the spot that it happened."

After marriage equality was legalized, marriage licenses spiked in the years that follow, he said. Until 2013, it hovered around 2,000, and after increased to 2,692 in 2013, which it hasn't dipped below again, with the exception of 2020.

A pride flag hangs above the door to the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, June 12, 2024, as people arrive to view photographer Max Cooper’s exhibit.
A pride flag hangs above the door to the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, June 12, 2024, as people arrive to view photographer Max Cooper’s exhibit.

"These activists, 10 years ago, created something really important that is still having a lasting impact today," Reisinger said. "Most people would never know the names of the people involved in this lawsuit, or those who got arrested in my office demanding a license, or those couples who came and protested, but they are the ones who achieved marriage equality for North Carolinians. I'm excited to honor them."

Campaign for the Southern Equality was founded by Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara in 2011. In the years preceding the ruling, CSE launched the WE DO Campaign, with a vision of building a movement for marriage equality across the South.

Across Southern states, LGBTQ couples requested, and were denied, marriage licenses in their hometowns as part of the campaign.

"At times it was heartbreaking and poignant because the people on one side of counter were friends with the people on the other side of the counter," Beach-Ferrara said. "At times it was just remarkably powerful because of knowing how much courage it took to go through this very public experience in the name of trying to be one more piece of a very big strategic puzzle that would ultimately bring marriage equality to the South.”

Joe Hoffman was a pastor at First Congregational UCC in 2014. He is featured in Max Cooper’s marriage equality exhibit.
Joe Hoffman was a pastor at First Congregational UCC in 2014. He is featured in Max Cooper’s marriage equality exhibit.

Day of the ruling

Joe Hoffman, in 2014 a pastor at First Congregational UCC, now retired, smiled to see a photo of himself in the exhibit, embracing a couple whose wedding he had just officiated in the Registrar's office.

"See that happiness?" he said. He had been a part of the advocacy work in the years preceding the ruling and refused to officiate heterosexual marriages until everyone in his congregation had the right.

The day of the ruling, he was among those waiting for news to break.

An announcement days before by the U.S. Supreme Court, that it would not hear any appeal of a July ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond striking down Virginia's ban, paved the way for states to move forward, but it wasn't clear how or when, Beach-Ferrara said.

“We were at the point where the dominos were starting to fall, but there was still a lot of uncertainty in the air. We knew there were two cases in North Carolina, and a ruling could come either from the middle district case or the western district case where we were," she said. Activists spent the week bracing themselves, many splitting time between the Registrar's office and the basement of the church next door.

Asheville photographer Max Cooper’s exhibit on marriage equality will be on display at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds through the end of 2024.
Asheville photographer Max Cooper’s exhibit on marriage equality will be on display at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds through the end of 2024.

By 5 p.m. Friday, as Cooper, the photographer, tells it, the mood had started to drop. A large crowd had gathered in the office's lobby. As the day tipped into evening, it seemed less and less likely a ruling would come.

“People had been waiting their whole lives … to see change happen in North Carolina, and couples had been waiting years, in some cases decades, and sometimes the closer you get to something being real, the more heightened all the emotion is," Beach-Ferrara said.

She was at the head of the crowd that evening in her capacity as CSE executive director, along with her wife, Meghann Burke, an attorney. The beginnings of a possible conciliatory speech were interrupted by Reisinger who, at 5:18 p.m., told Beach-Ferrara and the assembled crowd: "Judge Cogburn has signed an order."

"It was just absolutely electric," she said.

Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, left, Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Meghann Burke celebrate the legalization of gay marriage in North Carolina right after 5 p.m. in the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. The decision led to many gay and lesbian couples receiving marriage licenses and being married on the steps of the building following the ruling. 10/10/14

In a video of the announcement, the screams of celebration fuzz out the audio. The camera jostles with the crowd's motion, Reisinger threw both arms in the air. Beach-Ferrara and her wife embraced.

"The whole team just erupts into tears and chaos and beauty," Reisinger said. "It was lovely.”

The hours after the ruling were "chaos," Hoffman said. "Joyful and tearful." He was scrambling to connect clergy to couples in need of an ordained minister.

Couples like Beth Heinberg, 56, and Nancy Asch, 68, who got married in Boston in 2004, went from being married back to being engaged the minute they crossed state lines, Asch joked. They moved to Asheville in 2005.

Buncombe County Registrar Drew Reisinger and Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara are seen in Max Cooper’s marriage equality exhibit at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, June 12, 2024.
Buncombe County Registrar Drew Reisinger and Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara are seen in Max Cooper’s marriage equality exhibit at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, June 12, 2024.

With the ruling, their out-of-state marriage was recognized under state law.

Cooper's favorite moment he captured came after he followed Reisinger back to his office where the legal team was reading the order from U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr. for the first time. At the time of the announcement, they didn't know what it said.

"That's when it sank in for me that everything had changed," Cooper said. "Within a few minutes of that, the first weddings were taking place."

In the series of photos, Burke reads while Reisinger watches. His face transforms from apprehension to a wide grin. It was 5:43 p.m. Minutes later, Reisinger was behind the counter, issuing a marriage license to the first couple.

'Wins can happen'

While marriage can be a symbolic gesture, activists will note it is much more than that — it also represents a range of financial and legal implications, such as filing taxes jointly, health care privileges, and Social Security and inheritance benefits.

For same-sex couples with children, it can make the difference between being considered a legal guardian or not.

Nearly 1,200 federal protections and rights are triggered by marriage, Beach-Ferrara said. "There is no way to approximate those."

Even a decade later, the future can feel uncertain. Immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, the Register of Deeds office saw a significant increase in same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses.

People view Max Cooper’s photography exhibit at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, June 12, 2024.
People view Max Cooper’s photography exhibit at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, June 12, 2024.

The language of the decision itself and Justice Clarence Thomas' concurring opinion, which called for the court to reexamine other landmark cases, including the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that guaranteed marriage equality, sent an undercurrent of fear rippling through the community.

Scott pointed to the staggering numbers of anti-LGBTQ legislation filed in 2023. The current challenges make it even more important to her to remember the victories, "that wins can happen."

“Things like that are important to celebrate, especially, maybe, when we’re under some of the worst attacks the LGBTQ community has faced in decades," Scott said. "Being here today, it makes me joyful and happy and rejuvenates me for the fight ahead."

If you go

The exhibit will be on display in the hallway of the Register of Deeds office, at 205 College St., through the end of 2024.

See more of Cooper's work: maxcooperphoto.com/day-one-exhibit.

More: Asheville same-sex marriages skyrocket as LGBTQ community braces for rollback of rights

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Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email shonosky@citizentimes.com or message on Twitter at @slhonosky. Please support local, daily journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: NC gay marriage ban struck down 10 years ago; Asheville photo exhibit

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