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The Marrying Kind

The Marrying Kind

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New York City clerk Michael McSweeney sounds remarkably calm for someone at the center of a civil rights whirlwind. As head of the agency that maintains the city's Marriage Bureau, he oversees offices in the four outer boroughs and the Manhattan location, where the bulk of the weddings in the state are expected to take place on Sunday, the day the new marriage equality law goes into effect.

"Most people are kind of pumped up and excited because they know this is going to be a very special day in the history of civil rights and everyone knows they are going to be playing a role," he said. "It's a time that will be long remembered in the history of New York City, and I think there is a feeling that this is going to be an exciting time to be part of this."

This weekend McSweeney and his full-time staff of more than 60 people, plus a small army of part-timers, interns, and volunteer judges, will face an unprecedented assignment, with marriage bureaus throughout New York City opening for the first time on a Sunday to accommodate hundreds of couples, most of them same-sex and local, who entered a public lottery for the chance to marry on the historic day. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council speaker Christine Quinn, and the city clerk announced the contest this week in response to overwhelming online demand for marriage applications since July 5, when more than 2,600 couples expressed an interest in marrying. Some 823 couples entered the drawing for 764 spots, and city officials announced Thursday that they planned to accommodate all of them.

Entrants include 459 couples offered a slot in Manhattan, where they can obtain their marriage license and, if they choose to complete the process there, have a marriage ceremony for a grand total of $60. The number of couples to be served on Sunday represents seven times the average amount served in at the Manhattan bureau on Mondays through Thursdays, according to McSweeney, and almost four times the number normally served on Fridays, the most popular day to get married. The city set a record on Valentine's Day, 2003, for the most marriages ever in one day, at 621, followed closely by 610 marriages on August 8, 2008, a day considered lucky in Chinese numerology.

"It was the last time Valentine's Day fell on a Friday. Because of the leap years that followed, the calendar has not followed suit with a Valentine's Day on Friday," said McSweeney of the record set more than eight years ago. "There's always a little bit of anticipation."

Success in his role depends on familiarity with the calendar and attunement to visitors' needs. McSweeney took office in 2009, the same year the city, seeing the tourism potential, unveiled a $12 million renovation on a 24,000-square foot-space for the bureau in Lower Manhattan. Inside the 1920s building with art deco details, two wedding chapels beckon in warm hues like peach and lavender, complete with matching artwork. Forgot the flowers or need a lint brush? An on-site store sells last-minute essentials, including faux diamond rings for $9.

The face-lift completed, preparations have focused on administrative and logistical concerns like paperwork and crowd control, but McSweeney said conversations remained preliminary until the marriage equality bill passed the state legislature June 24. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill late that Friday night, giving the clerk exactly 30 days to prepare until the law took effect.

"In the month leading up to the vote that occurred in June, we were talking about it and there were a lot of conversations, but I think a lot of people were unwilling to be too optimistic because of what happened the last time," said McSweeney, making reference to the vote that failed in the state senate in 2009. "As things started to look close in the week leading up the vote, there was a lot of anticipation to see if it would actually pass. When the vote took place, the work began in the earnest that Saturday morning."

Planning included recruitment of 80 volunteer judges who will be available at offices in the five boroughs on Sunday to grant waivers to the required 24-hour waiting period between the issuance of a marriage license and a ceremony. Judges, who will also conduct marriage ceremonies, will be on site in Manhattan to grant waivers throughout the following week, when all marriage offices will offer extended hours of service. McSweeney said plans are in place to ease the acquisition of waivers in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island during the rest of the week.

New gender-neutral paperwork has been delivered, he said, and an updated script will be used, although he declined to disclose the content. He also refused to discuss any special guests or other entertainment that might accompany the first day of marriage equality in the global media capital.

While inclined to keep surprises under wraps, McSweeney spoke directly about the issue of clerks who refuse to marry same-sex couples on the grounds of their religious beliefs. Earlier this month a town clerk in Barker upstate became the first to resign her position rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples or officiate their ceremonies, and marriage equality opponents rushed to her defense.

"I don't think that was ever a thought here. There are definitely a couple members of our staff who are devoutly religious. They have some concerns for religious reasons but that is a very small number of people," he said, adding that he expects full compliance from all his employees. "No one who is going to be marrying couples has expressed any reservations whatsoever. Frankly, I think everyone feels very good about this. There's no reservations on the part of anyone who is going to be performing the ceremonies."

McSweeney, an attorney, attributes that attitude to the long experience of his office with domestic partnerships, which the city made available to same-sex couples in 1998. In addition, last year the city began offering wedding-like ceremonies for couples entering domestic partnerships at its marriage bureaus, and he believes that every borough has conducted at least one of the ceremonies.

No doubt his own outlook contributes to the festive and welcoming atmosphere his office wants to offer on Sunday. McSweeney sees himself as a kind of facilitator of happiness, even if he shies away from dispensing romantic counsel. In fact, his major piece of advice concerns the need for couples to remember to bring an adult witness over the age of 18.

"I kind of consider myself a romantic person, and I always encourage people working here to think in those terms," he said. "It certainly does offer a lot of job satisfaction."
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