Same-sex marriage seemed impossible — until the first couples wed in Massachusetts 15 years ago tomorrow.
Both proponents and opponents were energized as wedding bells rang across the state. Catapulted into the limelight, the issue of marriage equality dominated much of the political and social discourse for the next decade.
Now, same-sex marriage is legal nationwide, and public support has grown significantly. But, as people involved on both sides of the landmark lawsuit that made gay and lesbian marriages a reality look back, they say, the fight is not over.
The Day Marriage Equality Arrived
At midnight on May 17th 2004, hundreds gathered outside Cambridge City Hall to witness the first same-sex marriage licenses being issued. As the sun rose and other city and towns halls across Massachusetts opened, there were crowds waiting outside them, too.
As gay and lesbian couples lined up to get the first same-sex marriage licenses in the country, Susan Alves and Donna McLaughlin were among them.
“For me, it very much means equality,” said Alves, who had been partnered with McLaughlin for 18 years by the time they got their marriage license in 2004.
“We have a five-year-old and an 18-month-old, the five-year-old daughter is really thrilled that we’re doing this,” added McLaughlin. “It’s something we never really thought would happen.”
That same day, there were protests and press conferences.
“This is a terrible idea,” declared Evelyn Reilly into a bank of microphones. As the head lobbyist for the Massachusetts Family Institute, Reilly spearheaded the local effort to ban same-sex marriage.
“If we do not reverse this through the [constitution] this country is going to be in dire straits in the next generation,” Reilly warned.
Click on the image below to hear from Margaret Marshall.
While Massachusetts did not reverse it, a massive backlash did sweep the country. All told, 41 states explicitly limited marriage to being a union between one woman and one man.
“I had a sense it would be momentous in Massachusetts,” says Margaret Marshall, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court at the time who penned the 4-to-3 ruling. “I did not have any idea that it would be so momentous nationally and internationally.”
'The Milk Didn’t Curdle In Massachusetts'
In 2004, as same-sex couples wed in Massachusetts, 13 other states had ballot initiatives to amend their state constitution to limit marriage to heterosexual couples.
“And it passed in all of those states,” said George Chauncey, a history professor at Columbia University and author of “Why Marriage: The History Shaping Today’s Debate Over Gay Equality.”
Chauncey said the “firestorm of opposition” continued in state after state. “Basically, every referendum passed until 2012, when suddenly the tide turned, and marriage equality won in all four states where it was on the ballot,” he added.
While states were codifying their opposition to same-sex marriage, public opinion was moving swiftly in the other direction.
“The polling is pretty dramatic,” said Chauncey. “It shows nationwide support for marriage equality increased two percent a year, every year.”
In other words, 15 years ago, about 60 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage and 30 percent supported it. Now, it’s the opposite: More than 60 percent are in favor.
Chauncey said as soon as same-sex couples were able to tie the knot, they were humanized in the eyes of the American public.
“It was much easier for opponents to argue against marriage equality as an abstract possibility, which could seem threatening, than to argue it when you were talking about the married couples you knew down the street whose kids went to school with your kids,” he said.
“As someone put it, ‘The milk didn’t curdle in Massachusetts all of a sudden,’” said Mary Bonauto, the lawyer widely credited with crafting the decades-long legal strategy to make same-sex marriage a reality.
The world saw that same-sex marriage “was great for families and great for their children and provided security and stability,” Bonauto added. “And that began to change hearts and minds.”
Former Massachusetts Chief Justice Marshall said, in the 15 years since her ruling, things have changed so much that, last year, a law student asked her about the case: “‘When that decision was issued, was there any opposition to it?’”
“And there was something wonderful about that question because, of course, there was opposition to it. A tremendous amount of opposition,” Marshall said. But, these days, “same-sex marriage, gay marriage is just so much part of the norm.”
‘A Cautionary Note’
Bonauto, who argued the case in Massachusetts as well as the 2015 Supreme Court case that guaranteed marriage equality across the country, said there has been tremendous legal and social progress for the gay community. However, she warned, there is still a long way to go.
Click on the image below to hear from Mary Bonauto.
She pointed out that only a minority of states have laws protecting LGBTQ individuals from discrimination.
“It’s great to be able to marry,” she said. “And it’s not a great thing to feel super vulnerable about what this means for your jobs, your housing or whether you can get healthcare for your child.”
Robert Compton and David Wilson were two of the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts lawsuit. They said they’ve felt the peaks and valleys of changing laws and norms.
They married on the first day they could, 15 years ago this Friday. Then, they collectively exhaled. The first decade of marriage was like a honeymoon period. They felt accepted. Life became easier.
But recently, they say, things have gotten harder again.
“In these last two years, I’m very careful where I go, whether I am alone,” said Wilson. He said, as an African American male, “I often question whether we are being judged because we are an interracial couple or because we are gay.”
“We’re really going toward a much more divisive society where there’s more hatred and animosity between people,” Compton added. “And that’s very worrisome and very scary.”
Click on the image below to hear from David Wilson.
Some opponents say the tide might be turning against same-sex marriage.
“I am a little bit more optimistic in that we are getting better judges now,” said Evelyn Reilly, who has since retired from the Massachusetts Family Institute. She said she’s counting on President Trump’s judicial appointees to undo the changes of the past 15 years.
This does not surprise Mary Bonauto. “If you are any student of history, there’s always a cautionary note that there are people who will work hard to undermine those gains,” she said.
Both sides vow to fight on in the courtroom and in the public square, but the battle lines have flipped. The next generation of Americans rarely questions gay marriage, but opponents hope new judges will.