By Claire Walla
Nearly 75 people dug their toes, or the soles of their dressy shoes, into the sandy shore in the middle of Long Beach last Thursday, August 4. They came from as far away as Florida and from as close by as a beach blanket no more than 30 feet away from the white chuppah, a square-shaped canopy made with four poles and a sheer piece of fabric used in the Jewish tradition to perform a wedding ceremony.
Against a late-day, periwinkle sky pierced by a deep, tangerine-colored sun, Rena Rosenfeld and Marilyn Mercogliano stepped out of their car and faced the crowd. Holding hands, in addition to a leash belonging to their dog Shayna Maydala (which means “pretty girl” in Yiddish), they approached their chuppah.
“After 28 years, there is not much I can tell you that you don’t know already,” Justice Andrea Schiavoni said aloud to the couple, and to the cluster of smiling faces gathered around them. “But I can say that marriage does make a difference. Vows do make a difference. And rings do make a difference.”
Before the couple said I do, they faced one another.
“Marilyn, you have my heart,” Rosenfeld began. “I love you, as the Jews say, 120 years.”
Her spouse, Marilyn, responded with a smile: “I am the luckiest person, because I get to live the dream.”
There was hardly a dry eye on the beach as the two brides kissed. And with that, the first gay marriage was performed by the Sag Harbor Village Justice.
Rosenfeld and Mercogliano never thought they’d be married. Even though the two have been together for 28 years, built a home together in Sag Harbor and have a legally recognized domestic partnership, marriage was never an option.
“We wouldn’t even dream about it,” Mercogliano said in an interview after the ceremony. “We wouldn’t let ourselves. It’s hurtful to think that someone doesn’t think you should have rights.”
Even though gay marriage was legal in five U.S. states, as well as Canada, it remained illegal in New York, even after former Governor David Paterson introduced legislation to legalize same-sex unions in 2009. (It was defeated by the Senate.) Even though, theoretically, the couple could have been wed elsewhere, Rosenfeld noted that she and Mercogliano didn’t even consider going out of state to tie the knot.
“I said to Marilyn, no. Sag Harbor is our home,’” Rosenfeld recalled. If she and her partner were going to wed, they decided, it was going to be here.
Though they said they didn’t expect that day to ever come, much to their surprise it finally did. On the night of Friday, June 24, Rosenfeld and Mercogliano were glued to their television set. After several long, grueling hours of discussions, filled with positive comments and sharp criticisms, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Marriage Equality Act into law. They were overjoyed.
“We’re just so proud of Andrew Cuomo,” Mercogliano exclaimed this week, still noticeably excited by the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal in her home state. “He did such a wonderful thing for us.”
On Mercogliano’s birthday, July 4, as she and Rosenfeld celebrated with Mercogliano’s family at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, Rosenfeld presented her with a cake — but, it didn’t say “Happy Birthday.” Instead, Rosenfeld had written: “It’s Time to Get Married.”
“We thought we’d do it quietly,” Mercogliano began. While the couple certainly didn’t overlook the importance of confirming their commitment to one another, this legal union had much broader implications not only for them, but for the gay community as a whole. With marriage came over 1,000 rights that had not been in the realm of possibilities before, including hospital visitation rights and inheritance rights, among others. (The couple said that especially as they begin to age — both women are in their 60s — these issues have become more pronounced.)
Initially, they figured they’d go to town hall for a basic service.
“But then we told our friends, and they said, you can’t do that! I want to be there,” Mercogliano recalled with a grin. “For our community, this is a very big deal.”
It’s proven to be significant for the larger Sag Harbor community, as well. Mercogliano said the couple’s mail girl “was jumping out of her skin!” with excitement when she found out the two were getting married. And their fed-ex man was equally enthused: “He said ‘Mazel Tov’ and he kissed me!” Rosenfeld grinned. She added that she even got free bagels from Bagel Buoy when an employee heard the good news. “It’s an awesome community here,” Rosenfeld continued. “We’re very lucky.”
They planned their wedding in just two weeks’ time, and ended up with what both women have called the wedding of their dreams.
Rosenfeld said their wedding ceremony has been a big step for the gay community as a whole. As they were the first couple in their group of friends to get married on the East End, she said their wedding has already empowered some of their friends to take steps toward marriage. (She added that some of them are already planning to request Justice Schiavoni.) “I think we gave them a bit of the impetus to go out and do it.”