By Mike Hixenbaugh
Two by two, they come. They drive north across bridges and through tunnels, along a sliver of land that separates ocean from bay, until highways and city lights give way to narrow roads and cornfields.
They are here only for a day – just long enough to see the man who can affirm their love for one another. The waitress at Georgetown Family Restaurant refills their coffee cups and asks the couples where they’re from. She doesn’t ask why they’ve come. She knows.
They pay for breakfast, then head out along Market Street, past antique shops and law offices, around the historic traffic circle in front of the old Sussex County Courthouse. They stroll by a 200-year-old pillory, the last of its kind in the last state to banish the wooden device once used to torture people of their persuasion.
But they haven’t come for a history lesson. They enter the county office building; go up the stairs and down the hall to the left until they arrive at Room 268. They’ve come from Atlanta, from Tampa, from Raleigh and from Norfolk. By the dozens, gay couples have come.
The clerk of the peace greets them with a smile and a handshake. They know nothing about the stocky, middle-age man with the crooked necktie. They only know that this town – and this stranger – represent the easiest way they can make their love official in the eyes of the federal government.
They’ve come to see John Brady.
But he’s far more excited to see them.
The 54-year-old lawyer never imagined that he would be joining couples in marriage. Until this year, he didn’t even really like attending weddings. But laws change, and so do people.
Jessica Kazmierski and Petty Officer 3rd Class Lara Runge came from Virginia Beach. Brady met the sailor and her partner at the door before their ceremony.
“You both look beautiful,” he said before leading them into his makeshift chapel.
The man who held the job before him decided not to seek re-election last fall, in part because of a moral objection. Delaware had approved same-sex civil unions and was moving swiftly toward more radical change.
Brady, a former county recorder of deeds, had been looking for a chance to get back into public service. The onetime-Republican-turned-Democrat ran on the slogan “Let the Big Man Work for You,” and received 54 percent of the vote in staunchly conservative Sussex County.
Then came a whirlwind of extraordinary change.
Delaware became the 11th state to allow gay marriage; the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act; and the Pentagon announced that it would begin extending benefits to spouses of gay service members.
Those factors combined with geography to make Delaware’s southernmost county one of the most convenient places to get married for thousands of gay couples, from military-heavy Hampton Roads to Miami.
And so they’ve come. Most pass through Maryland, another gay-marriage destination, to reach Brady’s doorstep, but that state requires a 48-hour waiting period before issuing licenses. Delaware’s wait, Brady is quick to point out, is just 24 hours.
Kazmierski and Runge made travel plans within minutes of the Department of Defense’s announcement last month. A Google search led them to a small town they had never heard of, in a state they had never planned to visit.
Runge fidgeted with the box holding the rings; Kazmierski messed with her partner’s shirt collar. Brady cut through awkward silence.
“Have you enjoyed your stay in Sussex County?” he asked, and then offered suggestions for good places to dine afterward.
Since the marriage law went into effect in July, Brady’s office has performed more than 500 ceremonies, nearly half of them same-sex partnerships.
It’s a part-time job, paying just $24,000 a year, but Brady is committed to it: He’s agreed to perform marriages anywhere in the county, any day of the week, any hour.
He made headlines on Labor Day after a driver ran a stop sign and slammed into the side of his SUV, totaling the vehicle. Brady hobbled out of the hospital two hours later, in time to perform a wedding scheduled for that afternoon.
The Big Man has been in love, but he’s never been married. The teachers at his Catholic high school encouraged the young Eagle Scout to become a priest, but even as a teenager he knew that wouldn’t have been a good fit.
After finishing law school in the early ’90s in his hometown of Wilmington, Brady moved south to what locals know as “Lower Slower Delaware.”
He grew up just an hour away, but years would pass before he truly felt accepted in Sussex County. In these parts, you’re either from here, or you’re from someplace else.
And yet, in recent months, visitors have flocked by the hundreds to an antiquated town in the heart of a county that overwhelmingly favors tradition over change.
Last month, when an area school board narrowly rejected a proposal to add a Bible course to the high school curriculum, a county councilman went on the radio and complained that one of the board members was a lesbian.
“We all know they’re not very strong on the Bible,” he said.
That same councilman was among a majority that voted last year to waive the $200 marriage fee for service members and veterans. It was pitched as a patriotic gesture to thank brave men and women who have fought for freedom.
“They never anticipated that they would be creating an incentive for gay military members to come here from all over the country for a free wedding,” Brady said with a chuckle. “That wasn’t part of the plan.”
The fee waiver was the clincher for Kazmierski and Runge.
After filling out the marriage application, the couple spent the night in Rehoboth Beach, a resort town on the county’s eastern shore where rainbow banners flutter outside restaurants.
“We couldn’t believe how welcoming everyone was,” Kazmierski said, making small talk as Brady prepared the legal paperwork. “We want to come back and spend a week for our honeymoon.”
Scott Thomas, the director of the taxpayer-funded Southern Delaware tourism bureau, liked the sound of that. He wants to launch a marketing campaign inviting gay service members in Hampton Roads to come get hitched in Sussex County.
“I’m not concerned with people’s personal lives,” Thomas said. “Everyone is welcome to come spend some money in Sussex County.”
Brady emerged from his office wearing a black robe. He motioned for the women to join him before rows of metal folding chairs and a small audience of county employees.
“A marriage begins a whole new world, as two hearts pledge one love, and two lives are joined together,” Brady said to start the six-minute ceremony.
Kazmierski’s eyes grew damp as she recited her vows. Runge smiled and wiped a tear from her partner’s cheek, then repeated the same words.
“With this ring / I thee wed / and declare my trust / fidelity / and love for you.”
Brady smiled and nodded with each line. He then instructed the women to face each other.
“Lara and Jessica have solemnly consented together in a union of marriage on this 22nd day of August, 2013, here in Georgetown, Delaware,” Brady said, before looking away from his script.
“Because Delaware has one thing going for it. We have a legislature and a governor who believes, and it is the public policy of the state, that when two people are in love and they are in the age of the majority, that they have the opportunity and the ability to get married.”
He choked over the last few words, paused briefly, then continued with a trembling voice.
“So, therefore, by the power vested in me by the state of Delaware, I now pronounce you a happily married couple. You may kiss and embrace your wife.”
The crowd cheered.
Brady and the newlyweds posed for photos. He thanked them again for making the 3½-hour drive, and hugged both women before seeing them out the door.
“This is such a happy place,” Brady said. “I’ve never had a happier job.”
Minutes later, the clerk of the peace retreated to his private office near the end of another long day in what has quickly become Delaware’s busiest marriage bureau.
The room, lined with plaques and degrees, has become a refuge for a man who works more than 80 hours a week among three jobs – a place to recharge emotionally.
Couples probably wonder why he gets choked up performing the weddings of strangers, Brady said.
They don’t know about the malicious pink postcards that a political opponent mailed to voters several years back. They don’t know about the slurs that have come from the mouths of friends. They don’t know about the longtime partner whose heart stopped suddenly three years ago, or the tattered photo he still carries in his wallet.
They don’t know his Josh always wanted to get married.
“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time, but the change in the law didn’t come soon enough,” Brady said, his bottom lip quivering.
He bowed his head, took a deep breath and tried not to cry.
The Big Man didn’t have time for tears.
Two men were waiting for him in the lobby.