First, the background: My partner, Suzanne, and I have been “together” for eight years. Our closest friends are straight couples who have all methodically tied the knot over the past five or six years. Each time there’s been a wedding, our friends have pleaded with us to have one, too. Each year our response was the same: “But we already love each other … what’s going to change? We won’t get any new rights under the law … We’ve already committed to each other for life. What’s the point?”

We also knew how awkward a ceremony with our families would be. We had many friends and family who accepted us, but being accepted is much different from being celebrated and encouraged. I just couldn’t imagine getting to the part about kissing the bride and having both of our dads there, knowing they would cringe at that moment and probably have nightmares about it later. I just didn’t want to feel that. Even though they would probably attend because they loved us, I knew that moment just wouldn’t be the same as when straight couples get married. We didn’t want to feel anything like that on our wedding day. So until last weekend, a good enough reason to tie the knot had yet to emerge.

Saturday morning, Valentine’s Day, we opened the paper and read about San Francisco issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. How cool, we both thought … Lucky them. Over the next 24 hours, however, we kept talking about how much we’d love to go out there. Even if we couldn’t bring our legal rights back to North Carolina, we knew that for possibly the only times in our lives, we’d be recognized at least for 24 hours by some government in the United States as a legally married couple. I became obsessed with the idea of feeling the raised seal on the marriage license. I knew 20 years from now I wouldn’t even remember having this terrible cold I’d come down with. We had to go. And our friend Tessa wanted to come with us for the adventure. I’d been at her wedding to Ian this summer in New York, and she wasn’t going to miss this.

We caught a flight to Atlanta at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday but missed our connection to San Francisco because of the weather delays. The only flight we could get to California was to Los Angeles, and we could only fly to San Francisco the next morning from L.A. We’d read reports on the Internet that we needed to be in line by 6 a.m. to even stand a chance of getting through the line on Monday. So we flew to LA, got in at midnight California time, and rented a car to drive to San Francisco so we could be there by 6 a.m. Suzanne drove through the night and it was still dark when she dropped me off near City Hall to get in line in the cold rain at 5:45 a.m. I’d been thinking about airline security and wore mules on my feet to slide easily on and off. I hadn’t even thought about San Francisco weather, but Suzanne had packed my raincoat. She and Tessa then went to a hotel to shower and rest a little.

At 6 a.m. the energy was pretty much exhaustion and misery all around. There were so many people in front of us that those of us in line wondered if maybe we were freezing in the rain for nothing. At 7 a.m. the sky was still dark, I was soaked through my shoes and socks, and my cold was starting to really punish me. It was truly one of the more miserable experiences of my life. Moments later, a woman appeared in the rain on her bicycle. She stopped in front of me, got off her bike and touched my arm. “Could I get you a cup of coffee?” she asked. She looked directly in my eyes. I’d seen this before: She was a missionary-type Christian and as soon as I accepted her offer, she was going to talk to me about how Jesus can save me from this lifeI can get out of this line. She asked where my partner was. As I declined the coffee, I told her the story. She stroked my arm in a very maternal, soothing way and said, “Congratulations, Lee. I’m so happy for you, and God loves you.” I asked her name and she replied, “Angel.” And she was gone. What made her get up out of bed on a holiday in that awful weather and get on her bicycle to help gay people wanting to get married? She wasn’t part of a group that had made a plan to come out to be supportive, to show their church was cool, who then had to come, even though it was raining, because otherwise their friends at church would know they’d blown it off. She set her alarm that morning, got up, made sure she had plenty of money to buy coffee for people, put on her rain coat and went out to support folks from whom she had nothing to benefit. I’d never experienced this before.

At 8 a.m. someone from City Hall came down the line and told us they were opening at 8 instead of 10, to get more people married. We were likely to get in. The whole mood was uplifted. We all started talking more among ourselves. One woman was five months pregnant with twins and on bed rest. She was in a chair, and each time the line inched up, we pulled her and her stuff up with us. Two other women were from L.A. , and their partners were with their children, waiting till we got further along in line to come out in the rain. One man was Thai and had come to the United States four years ago to live openly as a gay man. We heard the story of two women who were married Friday on their 50th anniversary. Just the stories and camaraderie were enough to get the adrenaline pumping.

By 9 a.m. we were making progress, and lots of people were walking up and down the line offering free coffee, tea, hot chocolate, doughnuts and bagels. Many were other gay people who’d been married on Saturday or Sunday and wanted to make sure we were taken care of. Others were straight people and religious groups who were treating this as a civil rights issue, insulating us from the world and the weather. Only one protester was there with his Bible, and he was tame compared to anyone who’s ever seen a Pit Preacher. He kept insisting he wasn’t there to judge us, just tell us about God. He didn’t stay long. The other Christians were doing a much better job.

By 11 a.m. the rain lightened up and we turned the corner of the block and could see the steps and the statue of Lincoln. Someone had put a picket sign in Lincoln’s hand saying, “Everyone Deserves the Freedom to Marry.” A woman came by with a box of clean socks. When you can’t feel your fingers and toes after five hours, it’s the best thing anyone can bring. She told me to take two pairs, one for my hands and one for my feet. “God Loves You. Congratulations” she told me as she handed me white sweat socks.

At 11:30 we were at the front door of City Hall. It was raining lightly but we’d been doing the wave and cheering and keeping each other pumped up. The front door opened and a greeter invited us in. The heat was pumping on high and the warmth immediately enveloped us. We pulled off our hoods and I was so excited to change socks. The greeter took our hands, looked us in the eyes, and said, “Congratulations. You are going to be married.” I burst into tears. I can only imagine that this is what heaven feels like.

It had been such a journey. We’d gone through all these trials (not to even mention the years leading up to this) and we’d come into this warm, dry, grand room full of nothing but love. Hundreds of volunteers were swarming around, leading us this way and that, and they all reflected with an amazing glow, the love that Suzanne and I had come to make official. Volunteers treated each couple as though they were the only ones there. They made long eye contact with us and encouraged us to just breathe and savor the moment. They led us into another line to get a license where we came upon a huge banner with a photo of the same Lincoln statue in the ’60s with a civil rights poster in his hand and being surrounded by African Americans and hippies. I started to cry again. Suzanne and I held each other’s hands tightly the entire time.

Three hours later, we were on the balcony of the rotunda getting married by a man named Jose. Tessa held two cell phones for some friends and family to hear, and two volunteers were witnesses. Whenever we’d imagined a wedding before, we’d had grand ideas about how swank our dresses would be. Now, at this moment, it didn’t matter that I’d had on the same clothes for 36 hours and was still fairly wet. They weren’t even clothes I likedthey’d just been something comfy for the plane. My teeth hadn’t been brushed since I’d left Durham and my hair had been squished under a hood all day. Suzanne had taken a shower, but she’d been standing in the rain most of the day, too.

Jose held our hands and had us look at each other while we took several moments to breathe. Then the tunnel vision took over. I didn’t see anything but Suzanne’s eyes. I was crying uncontrollably. I repeated my vows, she repeated hers, we exchanged the rings we’d bought each other years ago to let people know we were a couple, and then we heard “by the power vested in me by the state of California” and a chill went down my entire body. Even the rings felt different. Suzanne’s eyes were wet and when we kissed, I heard Tessa and the two witnesses burst into tears. Suzanne and I just held each other for what seemed like an eternity.

We had basically collapsed into each other. She felt like an extension of myself. Jose was like the calm paramedic in a crisis. He was signing the forms and congratulating us and instructing us where to go next. I couldn’t really hear anything. Tessa was paying attention and led us where we needed to go next. After all the documentation had been recorded, we were shuffled back out the front door and back into the world of cold rain. Only everything was silent. Tessa presented us in Vanna White fashion with a flip of the hands while a crowd of hundreds stared silently at us. TV cameras were all turned our way. I grabbed Suzanne’s hand, lifted our arms and let out the loudest rebel yell my throat could carry. Then the entire crowd erupted, throwing glitter, blowing bubbles and rejoicing as we descended the marble stairs.

Suzanne and I spent three more hours in California as a legally married couple with all the benefits of married couples in this country. We didn’t exercise any of our rights, but what we did come away with was a much deeper love for one another than we ever could have thought possible. To not just have your relationship accepted or tolerated by society, but to have it supported and sanctioned, melted away some old, thick layers of internalized homophobia we must have both been holding onto. To have perfect strangers celebrating our love like it was the most beautiful gift on earth, to have strangers with nothing to gain getting out of bed to come out on this cold rainy day to show their support, not having one single moment of hesitation or fear or embarrassment or shame surrounding this marriage made this the best moment of my life. Nothing else can even compare

We came home and friends brought over the top of their wedding cake they’d saved, to be our wedding cake. Other friends had cleaned our house while we were gone, and decorated it with streamers and balloons. My mother and father called to welcome Suzanne to the family and to say they’d never been more proud of me in my life. And a huge group of people insisted on coming over to be with us as soon as we got home to celebrate. All of these actsfrom our family, friends and total strangersmeant more to us than they could ever know. Suzanne and I have changed. The rings on our fingers have changed. I’m experiencing a love now that I never knew existed. And no matter what happens in California or North Carolina with the law and our rights, no one can ever take that away.