Early Tuesday morning, 10 same-sex couples in North Carolina lined up at the Asheville office of the elected register of deeds for Buncombe County, to submit marriage license applications.
Those couples join a growing movement led by members of the Campaign for Southern Equality over the past few years, in which they protest laws and constitutional amendments that ban same-sex marriage in Southern states. But today, the protesting couples got a small step closer than ever to their goal of achieving marriage equality, when the local official who processes marriage applications, Drew Reisinger, accepted the applications and said he'd discuss issuing the licenses with the state's Attorney General Roy Cooper.
"This is the fifth time we've applied in two-and-a-half years and we've always been rejected, so we just assumed we'd be rejected again," said 69-year-old retired lawyer Carol McCrory, who along with her partner Brenda Clark was the first couple to have their application accepted today. "Today, it felt just amazing. It almost felt like we were equal citizens in this state."
Still, McCrory and Clark are likely far from being granted a license to marry in North Carolina.
While Attorney General Cooper has signaled his personal support for gay marriage — going against the view's of North Carolina's Republican Gov. Pat McCrory — Cooper's office has indicated he will still defend in court the state's ban on same-sex marriage, which voters approved as an amendment to North Carolina's constitution in 2012. When the measure passed, North Carolina joined 34 other states that define marriage as between a man and a woman.
And while Tuesday's events in Asheville and other steps taken toward marriage equality across the country are encouraging for gay rights advocates, North Carolina, and other Southern states still lag far behind the rest of the U.S. in granting same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.
But for McCrory and Clark, every step forward brings a reminder of the laws and strong public sentiment that keeps Southern states from legally sanctioning their relationship.
"It's just the fact that you have to fight discrimination every step of the way in the South that makes it so discouraging," said Clark, a 67-year-old educational consultant and former teacher. "If you're in a big city like Atlanta, there's been a lot of progress, but if you go to small towns and backwood places, nothing's changed."
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT) has won rights nationally over the past few years — most notably when the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which had deemed marriage only between a man a woman; and public opinion across the U.S. has over time moved toward a more favorable view of gay marriage. But people in Southern states seem much more reluctant to legally recognize same-sex marriages.
Virginia, for example, is the only state in the region where more than 50 percent of residents believe gay couples should be allowed to marry. About 40 percent of North Carolinians support same-sex marriage, according to recent polls. In some Southern states, like Mississippi, support is in the low teens.
"Really the wave of marriage equality has barely started lapping at the shores of the South," said David Dinielli, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has worked to support same-sex rights in the South. "We're at least 25 years behind other parts of the country. We want to try to catch up."
Dinielli said he's fully supportive of actions like the one undertaken by the Campaign for Southern Equality in Asheville. But he said marriage equality is only one of many pressing problems LGBT people are facing in the South — including rampant poverty and workplace discrimination — which could make same-sex marriage seem like a far-off dream.
"Discrimination is deeply enshrined in laws in the South," said the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.
Beach-Ferrara said getting couples to submit marriage applications in Asheville on Tuesday was as much about drawing attention to the plight of LGBT people in North Carolina and elsewhere in the region as it was about attempting a legal victory. She and others involved in the campaign believe that the more they push the buttons of politicians in Southern states, the more Southern residents will begin to support the idea of marriage equality.
But until there's a sea change in public opinion, she acknowledges LGBT Southerners will have to look elsewhere for the legal status they feel entitled to.
"We see that there are more and more people who know LGBT people personally and have growing support for marriage equality," she said. "But there's no clear pathway to winning equality through state law ... The ultimate pathway may be through federal rulings."
In November, Carol McCrory and Brenda Clark plan to travel to New York City to get married.