In the spring of 2001, when seven gay couples made a radical demand for the right to marry in Massachusetts, their court case barely registered on the state’s political or media radar screen.
When a lower court turned them down, the public gave a collective told-you-so.
“Nobody thought it was news,” said Julie Goodridge, one of the seven couples who sued after being turned away at city hall when they sought marriage licenses. “Nobody thought even remotely it was going to happen.”
But on Monday — three years after the court battle began, and six months after the state’s highest court issued its landmark ruling granting gays the right to marry — it is going to happen.
Gay and lesbian couples plan to go to city and town halls across the state to apply for marriage licenses. Some of the couples will ask a judge for a waiver of the usual three-day waiting period, and exchange vows that same day, in the first state-sanctioned gay weddings in America.
To gay citizens, their advocates and friends, Monday will be a day of public vindication and private joy.
'Committed couples from all walks of life'
"I hope what people see is that there are very committed couples from all walks of life in the commonwealth of Massachusetts who, in some cases, have been waiting decades to take legal responsibility for one another,” said attorney Mary Bonauto, of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who represented the plaintiffs before the state high court. “This has always been about real people and real families.”
To those who have worked to overturn or delay the court’s edict, the day will mark the end of one battle and the start of the next.
“Massachusetts will be forever known as the birthplace of homosexual marriage. From the Bay State to the Gay State,” said Democratic state Rep. Philip Travis, who sponsored a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages. “I had hoped that people of common sense, who understand what nature and marriage is all about, would prevent it from happening.”
Massachusetts was thrust into the center of the nationwide debate on gay marriage when the state Supreme Judicial Court issued its narrow 4-3 ruling in November said that gays have a right under the state constitution to marry.
Emboldened in part by the court’s strong endorsement of marriage equality, authorities in San Francisco, upstate New York, and Portland, Ore., began issuing marriage licenses as acts of civil disobedience.
Bush backs ban
Talk arose of a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage, which President Bush ultimately endorsed.
In a matter of months, civil unions, once considered radical, had become insufficient.
“When Mary filed the lawsuit, I told her I thought the time was ripe,” said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional-law expert at Harvard Law School. “But the fact that the debate then spread like wildfire nationwide and that some people came to regard gay marriage as at least thinkable was interesting and not entirely predictable.”
The ruling also touched off frenzied maneuvering within the Legislature, which is dominated by Roman Catholics in this heavily Catholic state and is more conservative than Massachusetts’ liberal reputation might suggest.
After more than 30 hours of debate over several months, the Legislature narrowly approved a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban gay marriages but legalize Vermont-style civil unions. But the earliest the measure could be put before the voters is November 2006.
Stage set for fight
This drawn-out process for amending the constitution was one of many reasons gay-rights lawyers focused on Massachusetts in 2001 as the next battleground after Vermont.
They also saw a census that showed gay citizens in 349 of the state’s 351 cities and towns. They saw active grass-roots advocacy and education about the role gay couples play in society.
And they saw a state high court that during the 1990s had issued a number of encouraging decisions on parental rights and adoption.
“In most of these decisions, the court has delivered a consistent message, and that is that the definition of the family is changing and the idea of the nuclear family is no longer the rock-solid norm,” said David Yas, an attorney and editor of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. “The court has seemed to go out of its way to recognize that nontraditional families deserve the same recognition as traditional families.”
By the time the high court ruling was issued on Nov. 18, the legal landscape had changed: Canadian courts had upheld gay couples’ right to marry, and the U.S. Supreme Court had thrown out Texas’ anti-sodomy law.
“In hindsight, I know it looked like a brilliant move to file when we did, but I wasn’t counting on winning,” Bonauto said. “I just hoped the court would be fair.”