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Love and Marriage

“Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage . . .” or so the song says. Falling in love and marrying, the experiences that are the themes of countless songs, poems, novels, films and soap operas, never came within the grasp of the lesbian and gay community in the U.S.–that is, until Massachusetts made it possible. Of course couples fell in love and committed to each other but marrying–that step of standing before the community and solemnizing a bond signifying responsibility, respect, and privilege–that the lesbian and gay community could experience only vicariously. No action people take in their lives symbolizes more than committing to another person, but that rite of passage, building security for couples, stabilizing communities, and affirming families, is legally denied to the vast majority of lesbians and gay men.

Denying people in love the right to marry has a long history as a way to demean and denigrate. Those who enslaved African Americans in this country made sure that they “got religion” but still prevented them from marriage–religious or civil. Nazis tried to assure that the Aryan race would not be tainted by intermarriage with Jews. Interracial marriages remained illegal in most of the U.S. until 1967.

In this history of shame, however, Massachusetts has remained a beacon of hope. In 1843 the Massachusetts legislature repealed a statute banning interracial marriages. One hundred sixty years later on November 18, 2003, the Massachusetts SJC ruled that same-sex marriage was legal. In 2005, the Massachusetts legislature, recognizing the importance of legal protections for couples and families, overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have banned same-sex couples from marrying. In official testimony, legislators shared how touched they were by the love in lesbian and gay families. There always was love and now there is marriage–in Massachusetts. Cambridge led the way.

Free to Marry–At Last–May 17, 2004

Susan Shepherd and Marcia Hams, a couple for twenty-seven years, proved to the world that wanting to have the first legal same-sex marriage license in the country meant that you’d do the extraordinary. Cambridge, a city well-known for its progressive politics, would be the first municipality to open up for business at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, May 17. Susan secured first place in line at Cambridge City Hall, and on Saturday, May 15, the longtime Cambridge residents tucked into sleeping bags under their big tarp close to the front door. The couple, along with their 24-year-old son, Peter, is wild about sports, and so this made sense to Marcia: “If people can do this for Red Sox tickets, we certainly can do this for our lives.”

On Sunday, more couples, arrived to get in line. A family festival took shape on the sloping lawn of City Hall. Dogs and kids cavorted. Frisbees flew. Hand-stands and somersaults wowed the gathering crowds. Kids and adults played catch. Couples held hands and shared their wedding plans. Every once in a while someone would pinch themselves wondering if the bliss would last, if they’d really get marriage licenses, if there would really be a wedding for them.

At 10:30 p.m. on Sunday night, when Mayor Michael Sullivan invited couples into City Hall for music, speeches, and a champagne and cake reception, the crowd of supporters outside had swelled; by midnight, the media estimated the crowd had reached ten thousand. TV crews lit up the scene. The excitement built. Kids waved glow sticks. Everyone sensed history in the making. Inside the Boston Women’s Rainbow Chorus belted out “Going to the Chapel” and the Cambridge Chorus wowed the couples with the Beatles’ hit “Can’t Buy Me Love.” When Mayor Sullivan said, “It is a day to celebrate the immense commitment that couples make to each other. . . . It is a day to recognize the commitment . . . of oneself to something greater than oneself,” the couples cheered him on appreciatively.

The countdown to the first second of May 17 began inside and outside the building, and the city block rocked with cheers at 12:01 a.m. Within the hour, the first couples emerged, waving their completed white application cards to the wild applause of thousands. Reporters and TV crews pressed in. Well-wishers handed the couples roses, threw confetti and rice, and kept up spirited rounds of “Going to the Chapel,” “God Bless America,” and “America the Beautiful.”

Shepherd, clutching the first fully legal US marriage license application for a gay couple told a reporter, “This is like winning the World Series and the Stanley Cup on the same day. I’m trying not to lose it. We just really feel awesome. It’s awesome.” Her partner Hams, thinking of their son, Peter, an NCAA hockey star, looked into a TV camera and said, “There’s a kid somewhere that’s watching this. It’s going to change his whole life.”

While Shepherd and Hams had planned to be at Cambridge City Hall, Ralph Hodgdon and Paul McMahon, who had been together for almost 49 years, did not have marriage at the top of their agenda. That all changed, though, on Sunday, May 16, just after 11 p.m. As they watched the eleven o’clock news, they saw the huge crowds and exuberant party building at Cambridge City Hall. That was it. They rushed out and took the subway to the festivities just to be supportive. Once at City Hall, they got swept up in the spirit. McMahon recalls, “We got there and the excitement was so wonderful, it was so positive and people were so supportive, the next thing you know we’re in line.”
When they emerged at 5:30 in the morning with their completed application, a crew from Good Morning America pounced on them. McMahon and Hodgdon became two of the new faces of commitment and love–and soon marriage. On May 29, 2004, looking very handsome in their tuxedoes, they celebrated their forty-ninth anniversary by getting married by a justice of the peace in the Boston Public Garden.

By the close of business on May 17, Cambridge topped the state in marriage applications, taking in 268 and, then issuing licenses to couples who obtained court waivers on the usual three-day waiting period. Few failed to notice the incredible generosity of city workers, ranging from the superintendent of schools to the chief public health officer to the city clerk’s staff who volunteered to stay up all night ushering in this historic era of marriage equality.

Cambridge was also the site of the first marriage when, shortly after 9 a.m., city clerk Margaret Drury married a couple that had been together for eighteen years. Tanya McCloskey and Marcia Kadish promised each other “my friendship, my support, my love.” Media from around the world captured the moment. The two women, who up until then had led largely private lives, found themselves coming out to an international audience as a married couple. McCloskey, lost for words, choked out, “I’m so happy right now. This is a dream come true. To stand in front of all these people makes us nervous but proud.” Kadish agreed, “I’m glowing from the inside. Happy is an understatement.”

All the Plaintiffs Marry–Media Madness

Across the river, couples, reporters, satellite trucks and well-wishers began gathering on Boston’s City Hall Plaza at 3 a.m. on May 17. The Today show, CNN, and the BBC set up shop. One couple that had never been interviewed before seemed overwhelmed in talking with “a newspaper from Spain, a television station from Japan, People magazine, NBC, NPR, Channel 7″–the world watched. Signs around the plaza declared, MARRIAGE IS A FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT.

Mayor Thomas Menino rolled out the red carpet and attended to every detail to make May 17 a flawless and memorable day. The first licenses were reserved for three of the Goodridge plaintiff couples who had come to this same building three years before and been denied the licenses that they now had won–for everyone. Menino and Bonauto looked on approvingly as each of the plaintiffs filed a notice. The three couples then went to court, obtained waivers, came back to City Hall to cheering crowds, got their marriage licenses and finally relaxed for a moment at a reception, compliments of the city. Before the day was over, all of the plaintiff couples would marry.