Love Stories

The chance encounters and long waiting that led to Richmond’s first same-sex marriages.

Most of them were at work when they heard the news. It was, after all, a Monday. One woman found out from a Buzzfeed article and was hesitant to trust the source. Nonetheless, they dropped what they were doing and headed to the John Marshall Courts Building in Richmond. There, nine same-sex couples were granted licenses that allowed them to marry.

Through its decision not to hear an appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage in Virginia just before 10 a.m. on Oct. 6. By lunchtime, the attorney general advised clerks across the commonwealth to begin issuing marriage certificates at 1 p.m.

But this isn’t a story about those moments. It’s also about the days leading up to them. The chance meetings. The butterflies. Building up courage to ask for another date. Wondering where you stand. Short trips, long vacations. Buying a house. Figuring out the next step. Taking a leap of faith.

Like anyone who falls for someone. Because yes, these are five of the couples who took a place in history that day in front of the Richmond courthouse. But they’re also love stories.


“Oh, who is that?”
Lindsey Oliver and Nicole Pries

There were only two things Lindsey Oliver knew only about her classmate Nicole Pries in their nonprofit leadership class: They both were extroverts, according to a class exercise, and the attraction was immediate.

“As soon as I saw her I said, ‘Oh, who is that?'” Oliver recalls. “It was amazing, because the lesbian community in Richmond is pretty small.”

Oliver’s friends knew Pries, and encouraged her to ask her out. The first date came in February 2010 — dinner at the Black Sheep followed by a burlesque show by Art on Wheels. They spent much of it talking about their careers. Oliver is employed for the National Network of Abortion Funds and Pries is a social work professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“We’re both the kind of people who are so engaged in our work and trying to make the world slightly better,” Pries says. “I was drawn to Lindsey, and I believe she was to me as well.”

But Pries didn’t realize it was a date. Once that was sorted out, things moved quickly. They knew they wanted to spend their lives together, but the term “commitment ceremony” seemed too dry — and legally wasn’t a marriage. They celebrated what they call their “magnification” on Oct. 6, 2011.

“Love magnifies happiness,” Pries says, “but it doesn’t make you happy.”

On their third anniversary, they became the first same-sex couple married in Richmond. Their love, already committed, was magnified to the world.

“It’s both awesome and bittersweet,” Pries says. “What happened three years before was the day we made our commitment to each other. Monday was a state stamp of approval for rights we should have had all along.”

It was a relief. After grappling with whether they’d have to move outside Virginia in order to have a family, Oliver still appears stunned at how much changed in a day. On Tuesday, a foster care agency that long was required to refuse them a child said they would be approved immediately.

“That’s when I started bawling,” Oliver says. “The relief of this is so enormous. It was just overpowering. Richmond is a great city, and knowing we can do all the things we want to do in our life and still be here is just awesome.”

As much as the state’s approval helps, they say, married life so far isn’t much different than the life they’ve built during the past five years.

“Did I love Nicole more on Monday than I did on Sunday? No,” Oliver says. And then, a beat: “Well, I guess I love her more every day.” — Tom Nash


“He had a smile on his face.”
Michael Haynes and Tony Williams

The legal benefits of a state-sanctioned marriage kicked in nearly immediately for Tony Williams and Michael Haynes.

The day after the two 54-year-olds married outside the courthouse, Haynes was scheduled to undergo gastrointestinal surgery.

“When Michael went into the hospital, I was not asked to leave his room because I’m not family,” Williams says. “If you’ve never had that happen to you, just imagine it for a second. It’s happened twice to me before.”

Instead, hospital staff subjected Haynes to gentle teasing, he says: “When I went in, all the nurses were coming in saying, ‘This is this newly wed. You shouldn’t be spending your honeymoon in the hospital,’ — stuff like that.”

Williams and Haynes met in 1994 through a personal ad Haynes placed in Style Weekly. Haynes was recovering from a serious battle with cancer the year before. Williams was working with local theater companies as a musician and actor while he held down a day job at a local bank as an administrative assistant.

After they spent hours talking on the phone, Williams finally invited Haynes over for dinner at his house in the Fan.

“I just remember opening the door,” Williams says. “He had a smile on his face. I don’t know if he stood there and got the smile on and posed and waited for the door to open — I don’t know — but it was just very charming. You don’t know what you need at certain points in your life until you find it.”

Williams served Haynes Shake ‘N Bake chicken and canned peas, which he is sure tasted terrible. It didn’t matter. The two watched a televised Rolling Stones concert together and hit it off.

“We’ve pretty much been together ever since,” Haynes says. “We went a day — maybe two — before we saw each other again. And from that point on, we spent every night together for a month and a half before we moved in together.”

In 1999, the two committed to each other in front of family and friends during a holy union ceremony at the Metropolitan Community Church in the Fan.

Today they live in a small house in Chesterfield County. Williams still works as an actor and musician while he holds down a day job at a social service nonprofit in Richmond. Haynes works in insurance billing. They travel together often.

After news spread that Virginia would begin marrying same-sex couples, Williams called Haynes. “He was at work and it was really not romantic at all,” Williams says, “and I asked him if we could get married today.”

Haynes said yes, obviously. But it’s not something he expected. “I thought it would never happen in the commonwealth,” he says — “at least not while I was alive.” — Ned Oliver


“The moment was right.”
Lisa McKnight and Jan Reid

They were having lunch when a friend called: In just a few minutes the state was going to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Jan Reid and Lisa McKnight headed downtown to join the spontaneous, celebratory gathering outside the courthouse and pick up paperwork. They didn’t plan to get married right away.

Then they ran into the Rev. Hilary Smith, who was conducting marriages outside the courthouse. They hadn’t seen Smith in 12 years, when she was the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where the couple worships.

“There was a sense — it’s really hard to describe — of synchronicity,” says Smith, who recently returned to Richmond to serve as priest-in-charge at the Church of the Holy Comforter.

Who were Reid and McKnight and to ignore such an omen?

“We call those God moments,” Reid says.

In a matter of minutes they were married, after a 30-year engagement launched in Oklahoma.

They met in night classes at the University of Tulsa’s law school. Reid was 33 and a city planner from Illinois, while McKnight, a 24-year-old native of Oklahoma, was a bank teller.

“I spotted her across the room,” McKnight says — and so did Reid. One night during a break, she walked over to McKnight’s seat, past three rows of desks, to strike up a conversation.

“We were zinged. Our friends said we looked like we were out of an L.L. Bean catalog,” Reid recalls, putting an arm around McKnight’s shoulders. With their sleek, gray bobs and classic fashion sense, they still could.

After living together for three months, they bought matching rings — a bold move in 1980s Oklahoma. Fifteen years later, they purchased the formal bands they wear today.

They’ve lived in Richmond since 1995. McKnight is an in-house lawyer for UPS, and Reid practiced law in the city attorney’s office before retiring three years ago. These days, she volunteers and cares for their two white Labrador retrievers, rescues known collectively as Team Sunshine.

McKnight has finished 76 marathons, and both women love sailing. For their 30th anniversary in September, they bought boat shoes for each other. They briefly considered getting married in Washington or Maryland, but figured it could wait.

“We thought, ‘It’s a piece of paper,'” McKnight says. “We don’t need it to affirm our relationship.”

But once same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia, Reid says, “The moment was right.” — Kate Andrews


“You need to get to know that person.”
Clara Joyner and Samantha Schaefer

They didn’t know whether they’d ever be able to marry in their home state. But Clara Joyner and Samantha Schaefer still got engaged six months ago.

“We really wanted to get married in Virginia,” Schaefer says.

“We’re both from here,” Joyner says. “Our families have been here since the 1700s. It felt wrong to leave.”

“I wanted to stay here,” Schaefer says. “But I didn’t want to be in a state that, like, didn’t give a crap about me.”

Her wife nods in agreement.

Joyner, 26, and Schaefer, 23, are the youngest couple that got married in Richmond the first day same-sex unions were legalized.

The two met as students at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2010. Joyner, a Williamsburg native, was about to graduate with a degree in psychology. Schaefer, of Lorton, had just entered the school’s arts program to study weaving.

The couple overlapped at the school by a semester — and only because Joyner took “forever” to decide on her major. They met only because Schaefer moved into the apartment next door to Schaefer’s. The balconies of the two units were joined.

Schaefer describes herself as incredibly shy, but says on the night she first saw her new neighbor on their balcony, something inside her told her, “You need to get to know that person.” By the time she built up the courage to introduce herself, Joyner had gone inside.

“I finally got the balls to go back inside through my apartment and knock on her door,” Schaefer says.

Joyner recalls being on the phone and not answering. But 10 minutes later, guessing it was her new neighbor, she returned the gesture.

The two spent the night talking, bonding over a mutual appreciation for heavy metal. Schaeffer played Joyner albums by Rob Zombie and Iced Earth.

After her graduation, Joyner moved back to Williamsburg. “I couldn’t find a job here,” she says. “I moved back in with my parents and worked at a hotel. I’d come up here every second I’d get. I spent all the money I was making on gas just to get back and forth.”

Joyner eventually moved back to Richmond, taking a job as a dispatcher at the VCU Police Department. She was at work when she found out same-sex marriage was legalized.

Schaefer, who works at Southern Season but had the day off, picked up Joyner at 3. An hour later a priest was marrying them on the steps of the Richmond Court House.

The couple is planning a second ceremony with friends and family members.

“I just wanted to get it in, I don’t know, before the Supreme Court changed their minds or something,” Schaefer says.

Joyner says she appreciates the increased social acceptance that the arrival of state-sanctioned marriage signals: “I can hold her hand in the grocery store, and you can look at me all you want, but, we’re married, screw you.” — Ned Oliver


“I just stayed. I couldn’t leave.”
Sam Howerton and Ryan Gardner

Everything matched. When Ryan Gardner saw Sam Howerton’s house for the first time, he realized that they had the same china, and the furniture was upholstered in the same fabrics. “Even our pets’ names were the same,” Howerton says.

They met at the James River eight years ago. “I was down there with friends,” Gardner says, “and we started talking. And Sam asked me out on a date.”

It was a date with a theme. Both are enamored with all things Egyptian, so Howerton took Gardner to a showing of “Journey on the Nile” at the Science Museum of Virginia’s Imax Theater. Dinner at Howerton’s house followed, and they’ve been together ever since.

“I just stayed,” Gardner says. “I couldn’t leave.”

“It felt like I’d known him all my life,” Howerton says.

When the news came that gay marriage was legal in Virginia, Gardner and Howerton were at work — they own Accent on Wood, a furniture refinishing, upholstery and interior-design business. A friend of theirs at the courthouse called, telling them to get down there right away. They were second in line.

“I was literally in shorts and flip-flops,” Gardner says.

Howerton took the call. “I yelled at Ryan, ‘Hey, guess what?'” They called their friend Scott Price, head of the Alliance for Progressive Values, and told him to get ready — they were picking him up.

Six years earlier, they had held their own marriage ceremony. But after they picked up their license downtown, they quickly arranged another. “We were able to get quite a few of our friends to come — about 20 of our friends took off from work or took long lunches to be with us when we got married.”

Gardner’s best friend, Stacy Prescott, was at the ceremony six years earlier. In 2010, she died of breast cancer. Her ashes went to Gardner, and he kept them in his sporran — the pouch that went with the kilt he wore — when he married Howerton again.

“She was there for the first wedding, so she came for the second one, too,” he says, laughing. “But she had a different viewpoint.” — Brandon Fox

Editor’s note: This story reflects a clarification to the Reid-McKnight story, in which a name was reversed in one instance.


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