Lee and Allen Padgett met in Destin, started dating in Destin and intend to build their lives together in Destin, despite the state’s refusal to recognize their marriage as legal.
"Our relationship is based on love, trust and understanding," Allen said. "The same as any other couple."
It was 10 years ago that Lee and Allen met through mutual friends here. Lee was in town from Atlanta, temporarily staying in Destin for work. As luck would have it, he met Allen while out to dinner at Landry's and the two immediately hit it off. When Lee had to return to Atlanta, Allen moved with him, and after five years of dating, Lee popped the question and they held a wedding ceremony in an Atlanta church.
Moving back to Destin, where Lee and Allen live and work, the two enjoy going out to dinner at Graffiti's and Funky Blues Shack and frequently start their weekends at Pepito's for Margarita Friday.
As a hair stylist at C'est La Vie Salon, Allen spends most of his days talking with clients and, of course, conversations typically revolve around relationships.
"Their struggles are the same struggles Lee and I have," he said. "I'm shocked by how not different we are. It cracks me up. People are people."
'This is progress'
In 2011, the Padgetts moved to Destin where Allen grew up and his mother and sister live. In Atlanta, Allen and Lee resided in a city where their lifestyle was relatively a non-issue. Just a little bit farther south, in the heart of the Bible Belt, it's a little more difficult to find acceptance. However, Allen said Northwest Florida has changed.
"Compared to what it was, this is progress," he said. "I remember being bullied and picked on. I would just pretend it's not happening to me. It's not right, but it's how you survive. It was my reality; I didn't know it could be any different."
"I've been remarkably encouraged by the increase of the 'mind your own business' kind of thing," Lee added.
But the Padgetts know that the laws matter as much as public opinion, if not more. Without basic marriage rights, a trip to the hospital is anything but simple for the couple.
"We have to take a power of attorney and living wills with us whenever we go to the doctor," Lee said. "If one of us were to pass away, the POA and living will cease. We have to hope our families carry out our wishes."
"That's what I always think about," Allen added. "My biggest fear is being in a situation and leaving someone powerless. Legal rights are so important. It's not a religious thing."
'Destin is my home'
Allen and Lee could have chosen to get married in Massachusetts, which began allowing gay marriage in 2004. But it was crucial for the two to be close to their southern roots.
"It was more important to us to have all of our family and friends there to acknowledge our commitment to each other," Allen said of the 2009 ceremony.
They also wanted to be married in a church. In Atlanta, they regularly attended service at First Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination with a positive ministry to gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender persons.
"I was raised in a Christian home and very active in my church," Lee said. "I had a lot of inner struggle and didn't come out until my mid-20s, but I never had any point where I thought, 'I'm done with religion.’ The more I read the Bible and prayed, I learned that God loves me no matter who I am. God created me and whatever he created, he had a reason for."
"When I came out, I felt more acceptance in that moment," Allen added. "God still loves me. I'm going to be OK."
In July, Lee and Allen will celebrate their five-year wedding anniversary by getting legally married in San Francisco. It will also mark the couple's 10-year anniversary of being together. The ceremony will allow the Padgetts federal rights, such as filing taxes together. But state rights, such as next of kin status and joint parenting, will not be recognized when they come home to Florida.
"It would be nice to not have to go across the country," Allen said. "But Destin is my home. I don't want to be away from my family. I love to travel, but I honestly don't know if I want to live anywhere else."
Residents and advocates
While surrounding cities like Panama City and Pensacola have gay-friendly establishments, both Allen and Lee agree the same should be said for Destin and its own LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community.
The Padgetts created a private Facebook group called Emerald Coast LGBT last year. Members must be invited. The group is now up to 300 members.
"It's a place for people to network and meet each other," Allen said.
The group also gives back. In the past, Lee and Allen opened their home during the Christmas season for a “Holigay” Party. The only requirement was to bring a toy, which was then donated to Toys for Tots.
If you would like to learn more about the Emerald Coast LGBT Facebook group, email EmeraldCoastLGBT@gmail.com