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Alaska’s first same-sex marriages performed in Arctic town of Barrow

Alaska’s first same-sex marriages performed in Arctic town of Barrow
Alaska's first same-sex couples to marry are (from left) Kristine Hilderbrand and Sarah Ellis, Kelly Cahoon and Bernice Oyagak.
Alaska’s first same-sex couples to marry are (from left) Kristine Hilderbrand and Sarah Ellis, Kelly Cahoon and Bernice Oyagak. Kelly Cahoon, Courtesy photo

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A remote outpost on Alaska’s Arctic Coast where people are used to doing their own thing has applied that independent streak to gay marriage.

A magistrate in Barrow, Alaska – the nation’s northernmost community, and one that cannot be reached by road – has performed what is believed to be the state’s first gay marriage ceremonies days ahead of schedule after a federal judge struck down the state’s ban. Couples lined up statewide Monday to apply for marriage licenses, beginning the clock on a mandatory three-day wait until ceremonies could be held.

For Kristine Hilderbrand, 30, and Sarah Ellis, 34, it wasn’t about being first when they sought and received a waiver to the three-day wait from Magistrate Mary Treiber.

Monday just fit their schedules better.

After completing their marriage license Monday morning, they began to check on available dates for a courthouse ceremony. They then tried to mesh those with their schedules and those of families and friends.

Because Monday was Columbus Day, a federal holiday, members of Ellis’ family on the East Coast were able to call into the court’s sophisticated teleconference system used for lawyers and defendants spread out over the far-flung judicial district when Treiber conducted the marriage ceremony late Monday afternoon.

Hilderbrand’s sister was her maid-of-honor, and her father and nephew also attended. She said Ellis’ brother from the Boston area used his thickest New England accent to crack up the room on the speaker phone when he said, “It’s wicked awesome that you guys got married.”

Barrow offered a unusual small-town setting for Hilderbrand and Ellis’ wedding. Barrow has about 4,600 people and is 725 miles north of Anchorage. Many residents lead a subsistence lifestyle, and the landing of three bowhead whales last week provided the passionate discussion, not gay marriage or politics.

“I think the scene is different up here,” said Hilderbrand, a third-generation Alaskan who was born in Barrow. Residents accept people for who they are, she said.

“The fact that we’re in a relationship together and have been for the last six years in this town, people have just been very accepting and it is just what it is,” Hilderbrand said. “It’s been such a non-issue here for so long that we were really more focused on getting married and getting to spend the rest of our lives together. We really weren’t concerned about all the politics.”

What did matter to her, though, was being able to marry in Alaska.

“I didn’t want to go someplace else and be married and then come home and have it be a meaningless piece of paper,” she said.

Treiber followed this wedding by marrying another lesbian couple at the courthouse. Hilderbrand and Ellis stayed to celebrate the marriage of their friends.

Kelly Cahoon, 28, and Bernice Oyagak, 27, petitioned Treiber for a waiver because they were leaving Barrow for Anchorage on Monday night, and they didn’t want to marry in the state’s largest city, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.

“It was really kind of special to be able to share the day with them,” Hilderbrand said.

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