Moments before Gov. Jack Markell signed the civil union legislation into law Wednesday night, he thanked the scores of elected officials standing behind him, and the hundreds of jubilant supporters in the audience in front of him.
But the warmest acknowledgement was saved for the dozen or so people sitting just a few feet away from him, almost lost amid the celebration.
“Especially to the young people sitting in front of me, this signature is for you.”
And then the governor put pen to paper, making Delaware one of only a handful of states to allow same-sex civil unions and fully recognize same-sex relationships. Couples who enter into a civil union will enjoy the same rights, protections and obligations that exist for married spouses.
“It’s about a moment in history,” Markell said. “And make no mistake, because tonight is history.”
The landmark signing set off a wild celebration among the 600 or so gathered at the World Café Live at the Queen in Wilmington. There were loud cheers, raised glasses of champagne and tears.
Karla Fleshman called it “stunningly unreal” and “absolutely gratifying,”
She continued, “What’s awesome is now we can have legal recognition for our family at a level that I didn’t think would actually come.”
Mary Tipping, Fleshman’s partner of six years, said she wasn’t quite as shocked with the bill signing, only because of the run of gay rights legislation that preceded it.
In 2009, a new law expanded the state’s definition of “parent” to give full, equal rights to lesbian and gay parents who may not have biological or adoptive ties to their children.
Then in 2010, another law gave gays and lesbians legal protection from discrimination.
“I’ve been very surprised by Delaware in the past couple of years in what they’ve been able to do with the anti-discrimination and the de facto parenting,” Tipping said. “So, I was surprised, but I wasn’t (that) surprised.”
Markell said the momentum shift toward equality started with those two bills.
“When those two laws passed,” he said, “the strangest thing happened … all of the hyperbole — the sky that would fall, the businesses that would boycott if we started to actually deliver on the promise of equality – well, none of that came to pass. To some people’s actual surprise, equality kept moving forward.”
The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2012, offers couples in a civil union the same protections, rights and obligations as a married couple, such as hospital visitation rights, property and last will and testament transfers, the ability to live together in nursing homes, joint adoption, and other legal issues.
And, perhaps more than anything else, Markell said the law is for Delaware’s children.
“And tonight, we say to children of gay and lesbian parents in committed relationships – and there are so many wonderful kids growing up in those families all over our state – that it doesn’t matter if your parents are gay or straight,” he said. “The people you love and look up to and that are dedicating their lives and love to raising you – those are your parents.”
It also gave hundreds of advocates at World Café Live, including Karla Fleshman, a reason to party.
“I think the party’s just getting started,” she said, and then added, “for equality in Delaware.”