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Gay couples exchange vows in Massachusetts

Gay couples in Massachusetts began exchanging vows Monday, marking the first time in the United States that gays and lesbians  have had a state-sanctioned right to marry.
Tanya McCloskey, right, and Marcia Kadish embrace after their marriage ceremony in Cambridge, Mass., on Monday, which was among the first in the state.
Tanya McCloskey, right, and Marcia Kadish embrace after their marriage ceremony in Cambridge, Mass., on Monday, which was among the first in the state.NBC News
/ Source: The Associated Press

Elated and in some cases incredulous at making history, gays and lesbians by the dozens exchanged vows and were pronounced “partners for life” Monday as Massachusetts became the first state to let same-sex couples marry.

The nuptials ranged from quick city-hall ceremonies to ornate weddings in downtown Boston churches, complete with champagne and fancy cakes. Among the touches: matching orange bow ties, rainbow flags and confetti, the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus singing “Marry Us,” and a special rendition of “Here Come the Brides.”

“When everybody wakes up tomorrow and sees nothing bad happened — it’s the same world it was the day before, there are only more people that are equal to them — they’re going to see there was nothing to fear,” Sheldon Goldstein said after obtaining a marriage license.

Fewer than a half-dozen countries allow same-sex couples to marry.

Conservatives outraged
Only a few protesters bothered to show up in Massachusetts, but some conservative leaders expressed outrage, and President Bush renewed his call for Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages nationwide.

“The documents being issued all across Massachusetts may say ‘marriage license’ at the top, but they are really death certificates for the institution of marriage,” said James Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian lobbying group Focus on the Family.

For all the jubilation, the hundreds of couples who received licenses still confront uncertainty, perhaps lasting years.

Massachusetts lawmakers have taken initial steps toward letting voters decide in 2006 whether to ban same-sex marriages and instead define such partnerships as civil unions. It is not known how the marriages that occur between now and 2006 will be recognized if the ban occurs.

And even though the proposed federal amendment is considered a long shot, many states are trying to ensure — in the face of expected lawsuits — that they will not have to recognize gay marriages from Massachusetts or any other state.

Among the first to marry, under a rainbow flag at a Boston church with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, were Robert Compton and David Wilson. They were one of the seven couples whose lawsuit prompted the state high court to rule in favor of gay marriage in its landmark November decision. An excerpt from the Supreme Judicial Court decision was read as an invocation at the Unitarian Universalist church.

For one, a trip ‘with a million speed bumps’
Compton called it “a journey that seems like a million miles with a million speed bumps.”

The decision by the Supreme Judicial Court prompted months of bitter political debate in the Massachusetts Legislature and in statehouses nationwide, even spilling into the presidential race and into congressional politics. Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts both oppose gay marriage, but Kerry supports civil unions.

Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican opposed to same-sex marriage, had instructed Massachusetts town clerks to deny marriage licenses to all nonresident couples. However, officials in three municipalities said they would issue licenses to any couples who attested they knew of no impediment to their marriage.

From Cape Cod to Beacon Hill
In Provincetown, a gay tourist spot at the tip of Cape Cod, two Anniston, Ala., men were first in line outside the town hall. “This is the most important day of my life,” said Chris McCary, 43.

On Boston’s Beacon Hill, Julie and Hillary Goodridge — the lead plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit — were married by a Unitarian Universalist minister in the presence of ecstatic supporters and their 8-year-old daughter, Annie, who served as ring-bearer and flower girl.

“This isn’t changing marriage. This is just opening the door,” said Hillary Goodridge, 48.

Robin Ochs, who wept with joy while marrying partner Peg Preble in Brookline, said the idea that their marriage might be overturned “makes me nauseous.”

“But that’s not something I want to think about today, because today is a day for love and happiness and wonderful things,” she said. “It’s not a day for thinking about hateful people or people that don’t get it.”

Cambridge starts early
Cambridge, a liberal bastion across the Charles River from Boston, got the jump on the rest of the state by beginning to issue applications for marriage licenses at the first possible moment: the stroke of midnight.

Among the first to get their paperwork there were Tanya McCloskey, 52, and Marcia Radish, 56, partners for 18 years. They filled out forms, obtained a waiver from the usual three-day waiting period, then returned to city hall to get their marriage license and exchange vows.

“It was really important to us to just be married,” McCloskey said before the wedding. “We want to be married as soon as we possibly can. Part of it is, we don’t know what the Legislature is going to do.”

At 9:15 a.m., Cambridge City Clerk Margaret Drury told the couple: “I now pronounce you married under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Ray McNulty, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Family Institute, one of the leading organizers of opposition to same-sex marriage, criticized some of the protesters, saying there was no need for hateful speech.

“What’s going on down there is legal, and as far as I’m concerned, give those people their happiness for the day,” McNulty said.

Massachusetts was thrust into the center of a nationwide debate on gay marriage when the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 in November that gays and lesbians had a right under the state constitution to wed.

In the days leading to Monday’s deadline for same-sex weddings to begin, opponents looked to the federal courts for help in overturning the ruling. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.

The Massachusetts court’s ruling also galvanized opponents of gay marriage in Massachusetts, prompting lawmakers in this heavily Democratic, Roman Catholic state to adopt a state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage but legalize Vermont-style civil unions. The earliest it could wind up on the ballot is 2006 — possibly casting a shadow on the legality of gay marriages taking place in the intervening years.

The first couple to receive marriage paperwork was Marcia Hams, 56, and her partner, Susan Shepherd, 52, of Cambridge. After 27 years together, they sat at a table across from a city official shortly after midnight, filling out forms as their adult son looked on.

“I feel really overwhelmed,” Hams said. “I could collapse at this point.”

Out-of-state gay couples are likely to challenge Massachusetts’ 1913 marriage statute, which bars nonresident couples from marrying in Massachusetts if the union would be illegal in their home state. Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who opposes gay marriage, has said that clerks who give licenses to nonresidents may face legal implications.

“All along, I have said an issue as fundamental to society as the definition of marriage should be decided by the people,” he said Monday. “Until then, I intend to follow the law and expect others to do the same.”

Still, officials in Provincetown, Worcester and Somerville, have said they will not enforce Romney’s order and will give licenses to any couples who ask, as long as they sign the customary affidavit attesting that they know of no impediment to their marriage.

Sure enough, Chris McCary, 43, and his partner of six years, John Sullivan, 37, of Anniston, Ala., were first in line outside town hall in Provincetown on Monday morning. “This is the most important day of my life,” said McCary.

The SJC’s ruling touched off a frenzy of gay marriages across the country earlier this year. Even though courts ordered a halt to the wedding march, opponents pushed for a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage, which President Bush has endorsed.

Impact in November
Both sides in the debate say the issue may figure prominently in the November elections across the country.

Candidates for Congress could face pressure to explain their position on the proposed federal constitutional ban, and voters in several states will consider similar amendments to their state constitutions.

In Massachusetts, married couples are entitled to hundreds of rights under state law. But federal rights are not available to gay married couples because federal law defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Canada’s three most populous provinces are among the only places in the world where gays can marry.