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It’s the debut of gay marriage in Washington, D.C., and the first batch of couples to snake through the D.C. Superior Court Marriage Bureau are ready to step in front of the cameras. But first, they’ve got to be coached on how to exit the building. Sultan Shakir, organizer for the Campaign for All D.C. Families, huddles around about five couples on the fourth floor of the courthouse, ready to usher them through the next step in their relationships.

“Outside, there are some cameras, and the Michael Phelps people are out there, too,” he says.

“Michael Phelps!” one soon-to-be-married guy exclaims.

“Oh, no, sorry, not Michael Phelps. Fred Phelps. I wish Michael Phelps were here,” says Shakir.

“Who’s Fred Phelps?”

“You know, the crazy, you’re going to hell, God hates you people. Don’t worry about it. You’ll recognize them.”

Some of the soon-to-be-married take a bathroom break. Angelisa Young heads back to the cashier’s counter to retrieve the box of celebratory cupcakes she had forgotten in the rush. One heads off in search of her partner—-“I mean, my wife, I guess!” she says.

One couple receives some individualized instruction. “When you exit the building, you’re going to just go straight toward the microphone,” another handler informs Young and Sinjoyla Townsend—-gay marriage couple no. 1. They will be flanked by two supporters and who will help them walk the 50 feet to the press area, where about 100 reporters, photographers, supporters, and protesters have gathered to ask them a few questions. “Just look at your paperwork. Just concentrate on that. If they ask you any questions, just focus on you. Focus on this moment, and your excitement. . . . just share your stories.”

“They’re calling us to come out,” Shakir says, after receiving a call on his cell. “The Phelps people are out there.” The caravan descends down three escalators to the courthouse’s ground floor and pauses right outside the glass doors. “Wait, wait, Sultan, how do you want us to walk out?” someone calls out. Inside the doors, yet another handler takes over. He stands in front of the group and calmly introduces them to the scene outside. “As you can see, outside there are a lot of cameras,” he says. The Phelps family will be on the left—-ignore them. “There’s a tripod set up with a microphone. People are going to ask you questions. It’s going to be kind of a free-for-all. There’s no set way this is going to happen,” he says. Young and Townsend are summoned—-they want the first couple to go first. “Ready? Let’s go.”

The doors open. The throng of on-lookers, corralled behind a barrier, lets out an extended cheer. You can’t even see the “FAGS WED” sign through the crowd. The couples approach and begin to tell their stories into the microphone as dozens of cameras reach for a shot. Shakir stands at the very back. He is cheering the loudest. Right behind him, the Phelpses are attempting to make their voices heard.

“You will always be miserable!” screams one woman who has two protest signs in hand, an American flag wrapped around her waist, and “GodHatesFags.Com” emblazoned across her chest. A small child stands next to her with a “FAGS DOOM NATIONS” sign and a blank expression. The woman, though, she is smiling. “This is a very important event,” she tells me. “Because this is the final straw!” I ask if she means the Apocalypse. “No need to get fancy,” she says. “I’m not trying to be rude. That will come later—-this nation’s DOOM will come first!”

The couples at the front of the crowd can’t hear her. Their supporters have begun to sing: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”

She counters: “This little feces pile, it’s really gonna stink!”

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”

“You’re dragging this nation into your crap!”

Shakir shoots her a look. He claps loudly and turns back to the happy couples. He says: “WOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Photo by Michael, courtesy of the The New Gay