After 24 years together, Pat Dwyer and Stephen Mosher decided it was about time they get married. It was 2010 and same-sex marriage was not yet legal in New York State, where they live, so they decided to pack up and drive or fly to the states that would allow them to legally wed. All of them.
From Vermont to New Hampshire, Iowa, Massachusetts, California and Washington DC, the couple hosted low-key, intimate ceremonies and captured it all on film as part of Married & Counting. The documentary, narrated by George Takei, premieres August 11 at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. “For any gay couple to get married at this point in our history makes a statement, but what they are doing…there’s something aggressively joyful about it,” says Vince, the officiant of the New Hampshire wedding, in the film. “They’re saying to the world, very loudly, our happiness is not a threat to you, but we are here and we should be counted.”
The idea for the film came when Stephan and Pat, who met at college in Texas in 1985, started thinking about how they would celebrate being in a committed relationship for 25 years. But unlike straight couples, they could not marry in one state and have that one wedding render them legally married in all 50 states, so they decided they would marry in every state that they could. The plan was to culminate the wedding tour by marrying on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington DC on the 25th anniversary of their coupledom on April 26, 2011.
They did just that, but the New York State Legislature threw them an alternate ending when it voted to legalize same-sex marriage on July 24, 2011. One of the most touching moments in the film comes when Stephen and Pat sit, holding hands, on the couch watching the vote, waiting for the legislators to decide their fate. “Our world changed like that,” Stephen says of the vote in the film.
Not long after, the couple married again, this time on New York City’s Coney Island. But even on one of the happiest days of their lives, after the ceremony, the couple remarks how perplexing it is that they had just hosted another beautiful wedding, but if they were to get in their car and drive across a bridge to New Jersey they would no longer be married. “It goes against my feelings about this country and what this country is supposed to be and what it can be,” Pat says in the film. “This will be one of those moments in history where posterity will look back and say, really, you made this an issue?”
Like the scene on Coney Island, Married & Counting is equal parts love story and political protest. For each set of tear-filled vows, there is a poignant moment about the fight for marriage equality. The well-spoken grooms speak out against those states who “compromise” by allowing civil unions instead of marriage (“Call it what it is—it’s marriage,” Pat says) and display their deeply personal struggles on screen, such as when Stephen’s dad refuses to come to any of the weddings (“If I was a criminal, he would come visit me in jail, but as a happy, free gay man, he won’t come to my wedding,” Stephen says).
The hope is to get the film in front of as many eyes as possible, says director Allan Piper. He plans to host screenings in states where same-sex marriage is being debated, including Maryland and Washington State, which have referendums on same-sex marriage on the ballot in November to decide whether to uphold same-sex marriage laws passed by the states’ legislatures. “People who get frightened by the idea of marriage equality tend to do so with an abstract notion of it,” Piper told TIME. “If you actually know a couple like Stephen and Pat, not only are they not frightening, they’re beautiful. Realistically, I don’t know how easy it will be to get people who are opposed to the idea of two men marrying to actually sit down in the theater, but if they do, I would love to think that this movie has the potential to change minds.”
As for Pat and Stephen, they’re planning weddings in Washington and Maryland if same-sex marriage is upheld, and will do the same in any other state that will let them. “It feels to me as though we are a part of something that is so huge that we can’t even comprehend how big this moment in history will be, until it is history,” Pat says in the film.