When Jonathan Howard and Gregory Jones received an e-mail announcing that Crate & Barrel would be holding a contest to win a $100,000 dream wedding — or commitment ceremony, as the rules specify — the two figured they’d give it a go. But even with what they both call a solid network of friends and contacts in the community, they never figured they’d ascend to the top of the list.

For a week or so there, that’s right where they were (they’ve since slipped to second). They seem to be  a shoo-in to advance to the finals (the 50 couples with the most votes will advance to the next round when voting ends March 31), when the winner will be determined by a panel of judges.

“I don’t think I was able to form thoughts at that point,” Jones says of finding out he and Howard were in first place. “My heart was pounding so much. My brother’s fiancée ... she was doing a vote countdown on Facebook, and it happened to coincide with my lunch hour, so we were just watching it. It was amazing to see a same- sex couple in first place. It seemed like a fairy tale.”

But things haven’t always been easy for the Washington, D.C.-based couple. Back in August 2008, when the two were living in Boston, Howard was brutally attacked in a gay bashing. Fabio Brandao admitted attacking Howard, two other men, and a female friend, but he got off with a two-year suspended sentence and no jail time.

Howard says the worst of it is behind them, thanks in large part to their strong support system in Boston and now in Washington. The same community that rallied behind him when he was attacked is fueling much of the support he and Jones are receiving with this contest, he says.