Gay and lesbian couples are getting legally married in the south-east of the US for the first time, with the practice crossing into a conservative region that has long stood against same-sex marriage.
The US Supreme Court’s decision yesterday to turn away appeals from a handful of states means marriage bans are unconstitutional in Virginia and similar bans in West Virginia and North and South Carolina should fall soon.
But as with other civil rights battles, plenty of southern conservatives seem determined to fight to the bitter end.
“Until the courts rule on the matter, South Carolina will seek to uphold our state constitution,” said the state’s attorney general Alan Wilson, a republican.
Support for gay marriage has rapidly grown over the past decade, as states mostly in the north-east began legalising it.
Polls show gay marriage has less support in the south than anywhere else in the US but the ground is shifting.
The latest AP-GfK survey, in September, found 34% of southerners favoured legalising gay marriage in their state, up from 28% the year before. In the north-east, 47% backed it, as did 43% in the west and 38% of mid-westerners.
Initial reactions to the region’s first legal gay and lesbian marriages exposed social divisions – between cities and rural areas, and between more progressive mid-Atlantic States and the staunchly conservative Deep South.
North Carolina’s attorney general, for example, has said he will no longer fight a losing battle.
“The south, like the nation, is changing,” said William R Ferris, a professor with the Centre for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“We’ll accept same-sex marriage just like we accepted desegregation and the end of slavery,” he said. “These other barriers that have burdened us for too long are coming down and the people in the south are open to change.”
Southern progressives saw today’s weddings in Virginia as evidence that the arc of history is bending in their direction.
These court rulings cannot help but “change the culture of the south”, said the Rev Nancy Petty, a lesbian of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Her congregation was “dis-fellowshipped” by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 after deciding to welcome gay and lesbian people and bless same-sex marriages long before they were legal.
“I think these kinds of cultural shifts in society and in religion mean that we become a much more accepting, tolerant, diverse community,” she said. “That’s really important, because we have to learn here in the south how to live with our differences, instead of fighting over our differences.”
Not everyone was celebrating. Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said the justices disenfranchised voters who banned gay marriage and “left Virginians without a definitive answer”.
Attorney Byron Babione of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented two Virginia clerks in their appeal, noted that it is still possible that another federal case will reach the Supreme Court and produce a different result.
Following North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper’s earlier announcement that he will not keep spending taxpayer money to uphold the state ban approved by voters in 2012, the state’s Republican leaders announced they would seek to intervene, despite the high court’s decision.
Virginia’s 2006 ban on gay marriages was challenged by Timothy Bostic and Tony London, who were given flowers by a pair of strangers – Larissa Boose Williams and her 10-year-old daughter Sedona, who arrived at Norfolk Circuit Court hoping to witness history.
“It’s huge for it to be legal in the south. It’s long overdue,” said Ms Williams, a Norfolk resident.
“We’ve got those old southern ways. People think they can vote on the equal rights of others. You can’t do it. The whole point of democracy is to help protect the minority from the majority.”