Image: Julie, front left, and Hillary Goodridge
Elise Amendola  /  AP file
A file photo of Julie, front left, and Hillary Goodridge with other gay couples and supporters as they celebrate their first wedding anniversary in Boston on May 17, 2005. The couple, who led the legal fight for Massachusetts to become the first state to legalize same-sex marriages, filed for divorce in January 2009.
updated 5/10/2009 2:30:58 PM ET 2009-05-10T18:30:58

Twenty years after he met the love of his life, nearly five years after their wedding helped make history, it took a nasty bout of pneumonia for Gary Chalmers to fully appreciate the blessings of marriage.

"I was out of work for eight weeks, spent a week in the hospital," Chalmers said. "That was the first time I really felt thankful for the sense of the security we had, with Rich there, talking with the physicians, helping make decisions. ... It really made a difference."

At stake was the most basic recognition of marital bonds — something most spouses take for granted. But until May 17, 2004, when Chalmers and Richard Linnell were among a surge of same-sex couples marrying in Massachusetts, it was legally unavailable to American gays and lesbians.

Since that day, four other states — Connecticut in 2008, and Iowa, Vermont and Maine this year — have legalized same-sex marriage, and more may follow soon. A measure just approved by New Hampshire's legislature awaits the governor's decision on whether to sign. But Massachusetts was the first, providing a five-year record with which to gauge the consequences.

Red-hot debate
At the time of those first weddings, the debate was red-hot — protests were frequent, expectations ran high that legislators would allow a referendum on whether to overturn the court ruling ordering same-sex marriage. Now, although Roman Catholic leaders and some conservative activists remain vocally opposed, there is overwhelming political support for same-sex marriage and no prospect for a referendum.

According to the latest state figures, through September 2008, there had been 12,167 same-sex marriages in Massachusetts — 64 percent of them between women — out of 170,209 marriages in all. Some consequences have been tangible — a boom for gay-friendly wedding businesses, the exit of a Roman Catholic charity from the adoption business — and some almost defy description.

"Having your committed relationships recognized — to say it's deeply meaningful is to trivialize it," said Mary Bonauto, lead lawyer in the landmark lawsuit. "I know people who'd been together 20 years who say, 'Getting married — it knocked my socks off.'"

No gay community to speak of
Chalmers and Linnell were among seven gay and lesbian couples recruited by Bonauto's team to be the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

They had been partners since meeting in Worcester in 1988, and now live nearby in Linnell's childhood house in the rural outskirts of Whitinsville with their 16-year-old daughter, Paige, whom they adopted as an infant.

The south-central town of 6,300, with no gay community to speak of, is relatively far from cosmopolitan Boston and the gay vacation mecca of Provincetown, but the family feels thoroughly comfortable.

Paige, who brims with self-confidence, is helping form a gay-straight alliance at her high school. When her fathers got married, she said, "all my friends were saying they wanted to come to the wedding."

Chalmers, an elementary school curriculum coordinator in nearby Shrewsbury, and Linnell, nurse manager at a medical center, say they didn't need the wedding to prove their commitment to one another, but they appreciate the added legal stability and the recognition they get from others.

"Before, we had wills, we had power of attorney," Chalmers said. "But the fact of the matter was, you can't make up for the thousand or so rights that are given to married couples."

They said many of the fellow townspeople they'd spoken with were unaware that gay couples — pre-2004 — generally lacked these rights, ranging from income tax provisions to medical decision-making to property inheritance.

Another plus: Explanations about family ties are easier now that "husband" is an option.

"More than once," Chalmers recalled, "I was introducing Rich and said, 'This is my partner,' and they'd say, 'Oh, what kind of company do you own? What business are you in?'"

Another of the seven lawsuit couples — Gina and Heidi Nortonsmith — live in the lesbian-friendly college town of Northampton with their two sons — Quinn, 9, and Avery 12. Like their fellow plaintiffs, they married as soon as legally possible — on May 17, 2004.

Heidi, who is white, runs an emergency food pantry, while Gina, an African-American, is an elementary school classroom aide. Heidi gave birth to both sons, who are biracial, and the family name merges the moms' maiden names.

"When we were getting ready to have the kids, we wanted to cross all our T's and dot all our I's, feeling there were so many protections for heterosexual married families that just weren't available to us," Heidi said.

"When marriage finally happened, there was that emotional sigh of relief — just knowing there would be a legal framework, and a court of law would understand our family."

Heidi and Gina bridle at the contention of some gay-marriage opponents that children such as theirs will suffer from not being raised by both a mother and father.

"We have really great kids," says Gina. "It's been fun to have people see who we are."

Listening in on the conversation were Quinn — just arrived from shooting baskets outside — and Avery, both doing homework on the sofa, occasionally offering their thoughts.

Said Heidi, "Having two parents who can feel and express love for each other, and give it in abundance to their children, that's what matters. It doesn't matter what the identities of those parents are."

Fading opposition
One of the striking developments, since 2004, is the fading away of opposition to gay marriage among elected officials in Massachusetts.

When the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2003 that banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, there seemed to be sufficient support in the Legislature for a ballot measure that would overturn the decision. But efforts to unseat pro-gay-marriage legislators floundered; a gay-marriage supporter, Deval Patrick, was elected governor; and a climactic push for a referendum was rejected by lawmakers in 2007 by a 151-45 vote.

Last year, lawmakers went further, repealing a 1913 law that blocked most out-of-state gays from marrying in Massachusetts. The vote in the House was 119-36.

The near-consensus now among political leaders is a far cry from 2003-04, when the debate was wrenching for legislators such as Sen. Marian Walsh. Her district, including parts of Boston and some close-in suburbs, is heavily Catholic and socially conservative, so when same-sex marriage became a public issue, "there wasn't an appetite to discuss it, let alone support it," Walsh said.

Once the high court ruled, Walsh faced intense pressure from constituents wanting to know whether she would support efforts to overturn it.

"I had hundreds of requests to meet with people on both sides," Walsh said. "Everyone wanted to know how was I going to vote."

She read up on the law, engaged in countless conversations, wrestled with her conscience, and finally decided the court was right — and there should be no referendum.

"It was a lot of hard work," she said. "I came to the decision that it really is a civil right — that the constitution was there to protect rights, not to diminish rights."

She described the reaction as a "firestorm" — embittered constituents, hate mail and death threats, rebukes from Catholic clergy, but she won re-election in 2004 and again in 2006 over challengers who opposed gay marriage.

"They said marriage is always between a man and women," Walsh mused. "I used to think that was true. I had those same premises, but those premises were false."

For all the joy and reassurance that marriage has brought to same-sex couples, it also entails periodic reminders that neither the federal government nor the vast majority of other states recognize their unions. Partly as a backlash to Massachusetts, 26 states have passed constitutional amendments since May 2004 explicitly limiting marriage to male/female unions.

Even the 2010 census, under the prevailing federal Defense of Marriage Act, likely won't record legally wed couples in Massachusetts and elsewhere as married.

"It feels like a slap in the face," said Heidi Nortonsmith.

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the Boston legal firm which won the same-sex marriage case, filed a new lawsuit in March challenging the portion of the act that bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

President Barack Obama has pledged to work to repeal the act, but it hasn't been among his priorities since taking office.

"I'm so dying to meet him and have him sit down with my family," Heidi said of Obama. "He could be a leader about this."

For now, federal non-recognition can be stinging.

After Michael and Rick McManus of Charlton married in 2006, they honeymooned in Panama, and on return to the United States were told at the immigration booth that they had to go through separately because U.S. law didn't consider them married.

Michael and Rick have subsequently adopted a son, turning 2 on May 7, and a daughter, almost 1. They plan to limit international travel until the federal policy changes.

"I don't want our kids to be coming through customs and having to explain that their dads aren't married there," Michael said.

Within Massachusetts, they said, being married has been a big plus — for example in dealing with state adoption officials.

"They knew we were a family that was in it for the long haul," Michael said.

But they are frustrated at having to file two sets of tax returns, at extra cost, as a married couple in Massachusetts and as single men for the Internal Revenue Service. And they were dismayed when Arkansas voters last fall approved a ballot measure that bans gay couples from adopting.

"We're constantly reminding our friends that we still live in a world where people in another state voted that Rick and I aren't fit to parent," Michael said. "There's a sense of security for our family here — but when we leave this state, it's a very different world."

'Sometimes people don't make it'
Joyce Kauffman, a Boston family-law attorney with many gay and lesbian clients, said particular hardships await same-sex couples who marry in Massachusetts and later seek to be divorced in a state that doesn't recognize the union.

"Sometimes people don't make it," she said. "What are they going to do?"

Massachusetts doesn't track same-sex divorces as a distinct category, so there are no statistics comparing how same-sex and opposite-sex couples who married since 2004 have fared in terms of breakups.

Overall, Kauffman thinks same-sex marriages — many between longtime partners — have been more stable. But she also has encountered same-sex couples who wed unwisely on impulse in 2004.

"A lot of people got caught up in the moment, for the wrong reason," she said. "But most are truly committed."

One of the couples that divorced, Julie and Hillary Goodridge, was among the plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit, which became known as the Goodridge case.

Janet Halley, a professor at Harvard Law School who has studied same-sex divorce, said gays and lesbians will likely split at the same rate as heterosexuals, even though they face extra challenges.

"The stresses are going to be higher because of the very inconsistent ways in which different states and the federal government enforce the legal elements of marriage," she said.

Halley advised gay couples not to strive for some idealized goal of family perfection.

"In order to argue that they were entitled to marry, they thought they had to represent same-sex relationships as more committed, more loving, more altruistic than is realistic," she said.

"Holy cow, the sky hasn't fallen."

That assessment of five years of same-sex marriage came from Jennifer Chrisler, who advocates for gay and lesbian parents as head of the Boston-based Family Equality Council. It's a common refrain from many like-minded activists, and the message can be grating for those who still speak out with opposing views.

"We absolutely believe the sky is falling," said Kris Mineau, a former Air Force pilot and pastor who is president of the Massachusetts Family Institute. "But we believe it would be a generational downfall, not an overnight downfall."

Mineau and his allies say their primary concern is the welfare of children raised by same-sex couples — even though establishment groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics say such children fare just as well as children with heterosexual parents.

"No matter how loving and how caring two women are, there's no way they can replace the role of the father," Mineau said. "It will take a generation to prove that, but we have no reason to think otherwise."

Mineau also said religious liberty is at risk in Massachusetts, and cited the example of Catholic Charities of Boston, which stopped providing adoption services in 2006 because state law required it to consider same-sex parents when looking for adoptive homes.

Friction with schools
At Boston College, one of the nation's leading Catholic universities, law professor Scott FitzGibbon said legalization of same-sex marriage also has created friction in the public school system and exposed students to "indoctrination".

Statewide, there is no mandate that schools teach about same-sex marriage, but FitzGibbon said he was troubled by some local districts' policies. Citing a 2004 anti-bias directive in Boston, he said a teacher there could risk his or her career "by encouraging an examination of the cons as well as the pros of same-sex marriage."

FitzGibbon also said many parents had been troubled by the Goodridge case.

"Same-sex programs lead on almost inevitably to a situation of discord and tension between teachers and school officials, on the one hand, and those numerous parents who adhere to ethical beliefs and belong to religious communities which disfavor those practices."

One such couple, David and Tonia Parker of Lexington, have withdrawn their two sons from public school and are now homeschooling them after a lengthy confrontation with school officials.

Parker objected in 2005 when his youngest son brought home a book from kindergarten that depicted a gay family. He was later arrested for refusing to leave the school after officials wouldn't agree to notify him when homosexuality was discussed in his son's class.

The Parkers filed an unsuccessful lawsuit contending that school administrators violated a state law requiring that parents get a chance to exempt their children from sex-education curriculum. School officials said the books didn't focus on sex education, and merely depicted various families.

"Parental rights lost out in a big way — the right of parents to oversee the moral upbringing of their own children," said Parker. "The judges are trying to force the government to affirm, embrace and celebrate gay marriage."

Catholic opposition
Opposition to same-sex marriage remains strong in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, though church leaders are less vocal on the issue than a few years ago when they campaigned hard for a referendum. Disappointment in the legislature for blocking a public vote is still deep.

"Why was it squelched?" asked Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester. "It seems to me, in terms of the politicians, that they have listened more intently to a well-heeled, organized political action group than they have to the will of the people."

McManus, who was installed as bishop just three days before the first same-sex weddings, says traditional husband/wife marriage already was under stress, as evidenced by the high divorce rate, and could be undermined further by the spread of same-sex marriage.

"The mantra that the sky hasn't fallen takes a short-term view," he said. "We don't know what the implications will be."

The Catholic church, he said, would welcome a civil debate, but he questioned whether this was feasible.

"The proponents of same-sex marriage argue that if you're opposed, you are exercising bigotry," the bishop said. "No one who's proud of being an American wants to be accused of being a bigot, so some people retreat into a live-and-let-live situation."

McManus insists the church won't compromise on marriage and says its views, over time, can still prevail.

Bonauto, the lead lawyer in the lawsuit, sees a different outcome as more states consider same-sex marriage or extend other recognition to gay couples.

"Goodridge set a new standard, and the standard was equality," she said. "It was a game changer. Even our opponents know it's only matter of time before there's marriage equality nationwide."

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