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For thousands of gay couples in Florida, marriage became legal one year ago

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The Shaks’ first-year wedding anniversary today started they way most do, with flowers and anniversary cards, and the couple is planning to end it tonight with a romantic evening.

Until recently, few saw that as possible, at least not this soon — for them or thousands of other couples who got married in Florida last year.

Carrie and Malene Shak of Celebration were among the first same-sex couples to be wed in Florida when that became legal one year ago.

They and 1,400 other couples statewide leapt at the chance to grab wedding licenses just during the 48-hour period of Jan. 5-6 last year, according to Equality Florida, a gay-rights advocacy group. (Miami-Dade County was allowed to begin on Jan. 5.) Perhaps 20,000 more couples have followed.

The Shaks were among 40 couples that gathered on the steps of Orlando City Hall the first morning it was legal in Orange County, Jan. 6, 2015, as Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer presided over a mass ceremony. They followed that up with a more personal ceremony in March at North Redington Beach.

The Shaks had been together four years and had been planning to have a commitment ceremony in North Redington Beach, when the chance for a Florida legal wedding arrived almost unexpectedly. They have many personal reasons to be thrilled. But they also recognized the sociological ramification.

It had been less than seven years since Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But lawsuits riddled such state laws in ensuing years, and Florida’s was overturned in 2014.

“I think it represents that as a society we’re moving toward peace and love and acceptance, which is exactly how it should be,” Carrie Shak said.

There are no available numbers or even good estimates of how many gay Florida couples wed last year. That is partly because advocates of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community lobbied to make sure the state kept only gender-neutral data on marriage licenses, to avoid any discriminatory practices involving records.

But provisional — still not fully accounted — data from the Florida Department of Health’s Bureau of Vital Statistics show there were 11,257 more weddings in Florida during the first six months of 2015 than there had been in the same period in 2014, about a 15 percent increase. Numbers available for the rest of 2015 suggest a similar trend, though not all counties’ tallies are fully recorded for the second half.

Some saw greater increases.

Leon County saw a 28 percent rise in weddings during the first six months of 2015. Pinellas County saw a 22 percent increase; Orange County, 20 percent; and Hillsborough County, 18 percent.

If there is a sociological experiment under way, it is working, suggested Hannah Willard, Equity Florida’s spokesperson.

“We’ve seen an outpouring of love and support from communities,” Willard said. “We hear from folks who now see those couples and these families are just like their own families … Absolutely, we’ve seen so much progress in Florida.

Carrie Shak, 34, is an independent contractor with Disney Parks and Resorts Digital, and Malene Shak, 24, is a teacher at Montessori School of Celebration. They had felt as if they had all the hopes and dreams of their neighbors, including that of starting a family, but still felt outside, somehow not normal.

That changed Jan. 06, 2015, Carrie Shak said.

“It meant that, at least for us, that we could have our marriage, our legal wedding close to home, and we didn’t feel like we were not part of the rest of society anymore,” she said.

“It was an amazing feeling to do it,” added Malene Shak.

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Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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