CHIPLEY, Fla. - Steve Schlariet and Ozzie Russ say they never sought the spotlight of social activism, the spotlight found them. The rural Florida Panhandle couple could become the first gay men granted a license to marry in the state when a judge's order takes effect Tuesday.
Together nearly 20 years and united during a commitment ceremony in Fort Lauderdale in 2001, the men live a quiet life raising horses and dogs on their central Panhandle ranch. When friends approached them about joining a lawsuit challenging the state's gay marriage ban, Schlariet, 66, and Russ, 48, were a bit reluctant - Russ jokes about how Schlariet briefly balked at walking into the county clerk's office and requesting a marriage license back in March.
The duo gathered their courage, entered the small office and asked to be married. They were told Washington County could not issue them a marriage license because Florida does not allow same-sex marriages. That rejection became the basis for a lawsuit that a led to the decision by a federal judge allowing them to marry.
"We don't think of ourselves as activists, but we didn't want to look back and feel that we could have a made a difference and instead copped out," Schlariet said. "Back when we filed this lawsuit, we didn't think it would affect millions of people, but it feels good to know that that is what has happened."
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle used the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Schlariet and Russ and a same-sex Tallahassee couple who wanted their Canadian marriage recognized by Florida, as the basis for his Aug. 21 ruling that the state's same-sex marriage ban - overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2008 - is unconstitutional. Hinkle stayed his ruling until Tuesday.
County clerks throughout the state are expected to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses when the stay expires after Hinkle clarified his ruling on New Year's Day. Lawyers representing an association of county clerks had claimed the ruling only applies to the specific couples mentioned in the lawsuit, but Hinkle said the ruling applies to all 67 Florida counties.
Reaction to Schlariet and Russ' legal quest in this rural, Panhandle enclave has been mixed. When the couple moved to Washington County for Schlariet's job in 2004, they mostly kept their relationship to themselves and only told people that they were a couple when it was necessary. Schlariet is a retired hospital executive and Russ works in fast-food management.
"We were a little concerned about dealing with the situation, and we wanted people to get to know us before we came out," Russ said.
A decade later, the couple says they are happy in the town, have made many friends and have not experienced any overt acts of hostility because of their sexual orientations. Each year, they host a Christmas party for about 150 friends from the area, and only one other couple attending is gay.
Filing the lawsuit opened the couple to a different level of scrutiny from both inside and outside their rural community. With about 25,000 residents, Washington is one of Florida's least-populated counties.