March 17, 2011 at 3:49 pm EDT | by Sarah McKibben
Gay couple’s $100,000 wedding

Carl Cox and Darin Henderson, a local couple, won a $100,000 wedding contest and were married earlier this month in Washington. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Local couple Carl Cox and Darin Henderson know what it’s like to come out in a big way — as do the other contestants of the nation’s first same-sex wedding contest.

The competition, a bid by local vendors to commemorate marriage equality in D.C., promoted the diverse stories of gay couples all over the U.S. hoping to wed.

The winners, Cox and Henderson, earned thousands of online votes last summer and cemented their union on March 4 with the top prize — a $100,000 all-inclusive wedding. The men, who married at Metropolitan Community Church, were honored to have their relationship legally recognized.

Nevertheless, the contest challenged them in ways they’d never imagined.

“[Carl and Darin] had to be out in their lives, out with their friends, out with everybody in a way that they’ve never been before,” says Michael Kress, a local photographer who headed the Freedom2Wed contest.

“When we first decided to get married, we didn’t even know what that was going to feel like, what it was going to look like,” Cox says. “Nothing about this was private. We had to let the world know what we were doing and why we were doing it. And yeah, it was about winning, but it was also about getting … our personal story out, about love surmounting all odds.”

Cox and Henderson weren’t the only pair whose relationship was placed under a microscope, however. Six couples competed for the final prize and runners up Tonya Agnew and Amy Crampton confronted a challenge of a different kind. Parents to two boys, Jesse and Leo, the women had to broadcast their relationship and family across the Midwest town of Lafayette, Ind. When they learned they were finalists, they were somewhat apprehensive.

“I had a tendency to think of all the reasons why we shouldn’t go through with this,” Crampton says. “It was scary to put my family out there.”

But it’s family that ultimately inspired the couple to continue on. “Once you’ve become a parent, there’s really not a choice whether or not you can hide,” Crampton says. “I have to be out, I have to portray how proud I am and I can’t worry about anyone else’s comfort level. Raising two boys, I know how important it is to model behavior for them.”

To the couple’s amazement, the entire town rallied behind them and they drew in support from family, friends, colleagues and the public.

Although they didn’t win, the journey brought them closer as a couple and as a family. They’ve since shared their story as keynote speakers at several local events and they plan to continue to be vocal about marriage in their home state of Indiana.

“The experience has been very affirming and liberating,” Agnew says. “It has empowered us as a couple and I really feel like it changed us in a very positive way.”

Agnew is also thankful for the close bond the contest created between the finalists. She and her partner attended their friends’ wedding, along with fellow runners up Kareem Murphy and DeWayne Davis.

Murphy and Davis, longtime Maryland residents, spoke highly of the contest-inspired opportunity to make their relationship public. “The contest was a wonderful experience for us … we got the chance to tell our story to thousands of people,” Murphy says.

For Cox and Henderson, the wedding was simply the culmination of a long journey of self-discovery.

“To have so many people standing in your corner, saying what you’re doing is wonderful … standing up for you … I can’t tell you how much it means,” Henderson says.

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