The Rainbow flag, a symbol of LGBT rights. Courtesy of Wikimedia

ITHACA, N.Y. — At the time, The New York Times called it a “quixotic” idea.

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Gay marriage was illegal in Ithaca, in New York, and in every part of the continental United States.

That didn’t deter Toshav Greene and Phillip G. Storrs. Greene was from rural Oklahoma and dropped out of Cornell after his freshman year. Storrs was from Troy, Pa., and worked at the Toshiba television tube factory in Horseheads, N.Y.

The two went on a blind date in Ithaca on Valentine’s Day 1995 and knew they had was a romantic connection “by the time they got to the strawberry cake,” The Times said. In May 1995, Greene and Storrs decided to get married and have children. They walked into Ithaca’s City Hall and asked for a marriage license.

A deputy city clerk was beginning to issue the form when City Clerk Julie Holcomb returned from her lunch break.

“The other person who worked with me said, ‘You have to stop them; you have to stop them,’” said Holcomb, who remains the city’s clerk 20 years later, in an interview on Friday shortly after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across the U.S. “I was completely disoriented … the other person said, ‘It’s two men!’”

The Rainbow flag, a symbol of LGBT rights. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Holcomb prevented the deputy clerk from issuing the marriage license. Fearing criminal charges for breaking the law, she turned to the city’s attorney for an opinion about whether she could legally issue a license to two men.

What followed was a 7-month long debate in City Hall — one reported on at the time by major national news outlets like The Times and CNN — over what would happen if Ithaca decided to buck state law and effectively legalize gay marriage. Greene and Storrs, the gay couple, even appeared on Oprah, according to Holcomb.

“It was cutting edge at the time,” Holcomb recalls. “There were people from my church, there were people from the more rural areas from the county, and people from outside the county saying, ‘What are you doing? Why would you want to do this?’”

Ithaca eventually decided not to “take the plunge,” as The Times reported, in part because gay marriage advocates themselves had divergent takes on whether granting a marriage license would advance the cause or set it back.

Still, Ithaca’s government was remarkably receptive to an idea that was — even by the mid-1990s — still radical. Nationally, about 20 percent of Americans supported gay marriage in 1996, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. President Bill Clinton had just implemented the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military.

But Ithaca’s all-Democratic Common Council unanimously voted to endorse the right of same-sex couples to marry — a position Barack Obama wouldn’t even take until midway through his presidency. Then-Mayor Ben Nichols, a socialist who was mayor of Ithaca from 1989 to 1995, was supportive of the idea.

“He’s the one who’s made this engine run,” Toshav Storrs told The Times about Nichols. The Times said Nichols’ background was “steeped in leftist progressivism.”

Julie Holcomb, city clerk

“(Nichols) called me into his office and said, ‘I really want to do this,’” says Holcomb, the clerk, of Nichols. “Politically, people were very open to it.”

Greene and Storrs ultimately sued Ithaca after the marriage license was denied. Holcomb said that it was a very difficult time for the city, as it struggled to both adhere to the law and show its support for the principle of gay marriage.

“I regret that the city cannot issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple at this time,” Nichols, who has since died, said in a statement in 1995.

“Given a choice, we would like to do so. The real answer to the question of adoption and other privileges and responsibilities for same-sex couples is to give them the fundamental right of marriage.”

Ithaca’s government would soon be advocating for gay marriage rights again soon after Nichols left office. In 2004, then-Mayor Carolyn Peterson announced that Ithaca would begin accepting gay marriage licenses to challenge the N.Y. health department to force the issue into the courts.

”I firmly believe that same-sex partners should have equal protection as other married couples do,” Peterson said at the time, according to The Times.

The courts turned out to be unnecessary to force statewide change. In 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo successfully led an effort to legalize gay marriage in New York state. Ithaca Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton celebrated the decision in an interview with the Cornell Daily Sun.

Then, four years later, came today’s bombshell: A 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that makes same-sex marriage a right. The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who said that “many same-sex couples provide loving and nurturing homes to their children, whether biological or adopted.”

“Excluding same-sex couples from marriage,” Kennedy said, “conflicts with a central premise of the right to marry.”

Kennedy’s argument was lauded by gay marriage advocates all over the country. But it also reflected similar points made more than two decades earlier, by a sometimes-forgotten Ithaca resident named Toshav Greene, who decided that gay people deserve just as much a right to marry as anyone else — and then acted on it.

“Marriage is the basic social unit in society,” Greene once told a reporter, according to Ellen Lewin’s book, Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment.

“… We’re living life the way that we were brought up: You date somebody; you get engaged; you get married. And then you establish a family.”

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.