Gay couples in RI exchange vows

Bill Byrnes, Peter Mitchell

Same-sex couples can legally marry in Rhode Island beginning Thursday.

Officials around the state began issuing licenses when offices opened at 8:30 a.m.

Demonstrators on both sides of the issue made their voices heard.

"They're going to hell, that's basic Christianity," Rachel Hockenbarger said outside Cranston City Hall.

She was one of four protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas that traveled across the country to protest gay rights.

"We love the gay community, We're the only ones who are willing to tell them the truth," Hockenbarger said.

The protesters stood inside a fence heavily guarded by Cranston police. More than 100 people from the gay community surrounded that fence.

"This should be a special day. I'm here to give all of the love to these married couples I can. They deserve it," Nichole Wright said.

Wright married her wife, Alyssa, a year ago. They plan to remarry on their anniversary in Rhode Island.

Alyssa Wright held a sign that read, "If you hate gay marriage, blame straight people. They have gay babies all of the time."

Inside the city clerk's office, couples weren't disturbed by the ruckus outside.

"They don't affect me one bit," said Royce Kilbourn, who has been dating Karl Staatz for 21 years.

They were the first people inside Cranston City Hall on Thursday to apply for a marriage license.

"It's really amazing. It's life-changing for us to finally be able to get married after all of this time," Kilbourn said.

Kilbourn and Staatz said they didn't want to get married in another state.

"Rhode Island is our home. It's important for us to be married here," Kilbourn said.

"We knew this day would come," Staatz added.

In Pawtucket, former NBC 10 employee Bill Byrnes wed his partner of 22 years, Peter Mitchell.

"This family is whole. Our children have been with us since they were babies, and now it is whole," Byrnes said emotionally.

The marriage of Byrnes and Mitchell was officiated by municipal Judge Donna Nesselbush, the state Senate sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill. She is gay and said she never had thought this would happen in her lifetime.

"I have been out since college, and when I was in college we never thought getting married would be an option. For us it was off the table. This is truly an historical day, when all loving couples can be married," Nesselbush said.

Byrnes said he had extra reason for wanting this legal union. A recent health scare put him in the hospital.

"The only think I thought about would (Peter) or I be able to bring our children into that hospital room were something serious to happen. By being married we are able to do that," Byrnes said.

And Mitchell, surrounded by the couple's children reflected, "I am so amazed at how happy our kids are. I'm a strong believer that we are not born with hatred. We are taught that behavior and our kids are blind to all the prejudice that is out there, and I am proud of what we have done as parents."

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church also protested at the State House, Providence City Hall, Pawtucket City Hall and Brown University.

Same-sex marriage laws also went into effect Thursday in Minnesota and the District of Columbia.