(WEST POINT, N.Y.) — As her Aunt Sue and Aunt Penny became the first same-sex couple to marry at West Point Military Academy’s Cadet Chapel, 15-year-old Amanda Fulton thought she should have gone with waterproof mascara as she felt tears run down her cheeks.
“It wasn’t just me,” Amanda said. “I was so teary and just blushing from smiling so much.”
Her dad’s sister, Brenda “Sue” Fulton had been with her partner Penelope Gnesin since before Amanda was born. Amanda said she grew up initially taking the same-sex couple for granted and then feeling hurt when she was old enough to understand that her aunts couldn’t get married like heterosexual couples.
“When you’re a kid, it’s so easy to understand that when two people love each other, they want to be together,” she said, reflecting on attending the couple’s 1999 commitment ceremony as a toddler and asking who the husband was. “I didn’t understand the marriage issue until I was much older. … Knowing that they couldn’t get married, that was awful. It was heart-wrenching.”
But all that changed Saturday in the Cadet Chapel, a landmark gothic building on campus meant to signify the central symbols of West Point, including integrity, respect and honor. Fulton said it “felt right” given that her work to support gay and lesbian soldiers has been based on those values.
They are the first same-sex couple to marry in the chapel, though not the first to marry at West Point.
Fulton was one of the first women to attend West Point more than three decades ago, and she was a key player in the fight to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Last July, President Barack Obama appointed her to West Point’s Board of Visitors, making her the first openly gay or lesbian person to serve on it.
She said she met Gnesin at choir practice in New Jersey 17 years ago. Fulton was late, so she went in the back to sing the harmony. Gnesin, who had been singing melody, stood up and went to the back row to ask if she could sing harmony, too. They became a couple a few months later.
Amanda said she grew up seeing more love between her aunts than she saw between many of the heterosexual couples she knew. They stuck together through Gnesin’s battle with breast cancer and her ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis, Fulton said.
Since Fulton and Gnesin both lived in New Jersey for decades, they hoped to marry when it was legal in their state. When a same-sex marriage bill passed the state legislature in February, they thought it could happen, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the bill, saying he would only allow civil unions.
At an Irish pub in Washington D.C., Fulton and Gnesin were out with friends who asked why they hadn’t considered West Point in New York, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2011.
“I looked at Penny, and we had a quick conversation, and I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me at West Point,” Fulton said.
Fulton wore a black suit to Gnesin’s white one as their guests celebrated the occasion by cheering. Many of the attendees were friends who had worked on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and Amanda said it reminded her of a big family reunion.
They wrote their own vows, Fulton said.
“I promise to be true to you, and to my own path,” Gnesin told Fulton in front of their friends and families. “Now, we stand together; may it always be so. Blessed be.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Joe Sterling and Darran Simon, CNN
Jamiel Lynch and Debra Goldschmidt, CNN
David Williams, CNN
Erin McClam, CNN