A Happy Anniversary

Written on May 17, 2012

Today marks the 8th anniversary of the first same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts which began on May 17, 2004.  I was there for those first ones.  It is one of my happiest memories, and I am truly proud to have been witness to that moment in history.

When the Supreme Judicial Court announced its trailblazing Goodridge decision near the end of 2003, it was like a bomb went off in the country; Massachusetts was ground zero.  Suddenly gay marriage was all over the newspapers and therefore at the forefront of both national and local political debate, not to mention dinner tables everywhere.  2004 would eventually have disastrous consequences in the national election for supporters of marriage equality and the nation at large–the nadir before the inevitable climb upward.  But that was still half a year away.  In Massachusetts however, immediately following Goodridge the tension was palpable.

Given how liberal Massachusetts seems to outsiders, and that in the in eight years since marriage equality is now entrenched, it is easy to forget that the LGBT community nearly lost the battle.  It was scary at times.  The invective tossed at the LGBT community by (1) then-Governor Mitt Romney; (2) the conservative Democrats and the Republicans in the Legislature; and (3) the usual homophobic hate groups was astounding in its blatant viciousness.  Add in certain segments of the media, the Catholic Church (embroiled in its child sex abuse scandal, yet showing off an audacity that comes with a self-imposed moral authority), and large swaths of the electorate, and it felt like the gay community was surviving a siege.  There were days when I could not turn on the television or read the newspaper for fear that I would start crying.

The Supreme Judicial Court in Goodridge set a six month deadline for the Legislature to take action or else same-sex marriages would automatically begin.  The deadline date was May 17, 2004, a bit of symbolic timing.  I have no idea if the Court intentionally chose May 17, 2004 because it was the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, but I would like to think that the Justices knew and acted with that message in mind.

As May 17th approached, city halls around Massachusetts put out the word that they would not open early; no matter how momentous the occasion, it was business as usual.  The one exception, naturally, was the People’s Republic of Cambridge, which proclaimed that it would open up at midnight.  No one was going to out-progressive Cambridge.  On May 16th, I made the mistake of watching television, and the coverage of the political debate depressed me.  I wanted to hide in my room, but I thought to myself that I should go to Cambridge City Hall to bear witness and be a voice of support.  I felt it was the least I could do.  It did not cross my mind that other people would be there too.  After wavering back and forth a few times, around 10 at night, I took the T from my Brookline station into Cambridge.

In hindsight, I cannot believe how naive I was.  Thousands of people lined the street from Central Square to Harvard Square as Cambridge City Hall became the sight of the largest wedding party in Massachusetts.  This was about 10:30, and the crowd only increased as it got closer to midnight.  Somehow, despite the crowd, I ended up very near City Hall next to a man with a gigantic rainbow flag and a middle-aged, interracial, lesbian couple who complained that the only wedding song gay men knew was “Chapel of Love” (they were correct).

I texted two of my friends who lived in Cambridge and told them where I was.  Both of them, heterosexual men for the record, immediately left their home to join me.  One of them found me right away, but the other was missing in action for quite some time.  Thanks to the man with the gigantic rainbow flag and the magic of text messages, my missing friend was able to find us.

See, even though there were 10,000 happy, joyous celebrants, the loathsome members of the Fred Phelps clan oozed up to Cambridge to protest with their “God Hates Fags” shtick.  From atop the hill where I stood, we all noticed them, but rather than being the focus of ire, we saw them as ridiculous figures to be laughed at.  After all, there were about 50 of them and 10,000 of us.  And all 10,000 of us had better things to think about than their impotent rage and attention-seeking behavior.  My missing friend however, accidentally wandering into the Phelps protest thinking it was the celebrants.  “After all,” he said to me, “there were all these women holding hands.  What would you think?”  Bright boy that he is, he soon realized his mistake.

As midnight approached more and more videos cameras appeared from media outlets from all around the world.  Then in the distance, police officers in riot gear marched down Massachusetts Avenue.  They turned and walked up the stairs leading to City Hall.  “Wouldn’t it be awesome if they all went into City Hall and got married to each other?” my friend asked me.  Alas, they did not.  But they were the honor guard of sorts, lining the steps as those first same-sex couples went in.

One of the clerks came outside and said something about how people might want to go home because this would take a while.  “That’s okay,” shouted a man in the crowd, “we can wait.”  And then we sang yet another round of “Chapel of Love.”

When the first married couples finally came out they were pelted by showers of rice (and yes, “Chapel of Love” again).  I was standing at least six rows back from the City Hall stairs, and for the next two days I shed rice from my hair.

I did not get home until somewhere around 3 in the morning even though I had to work the next day.  Who wants to leave a party?

The next day was business as usual.  I walked to work, and made sure to pass Cambridge City Hall.  By this point town and city halls around the state had been performing marriages for four or five hours.  In Cambridge were a few supporters lying on the grass yelling congratulations at every gay or straight couple that left the building, but for the most part it was pretty quiet.  Nothing really to see.  The headline of Cambridge’s local newspaper read “The Sky Did Not Fall.”

The mundane morning may have actually been even more important (if less momentous) than the night before.  Nothing was out of the ordinary, indeed the sky had not fallen.  All that was different was that marriage was open to more loving couples.  As such, passing a constitutional amendment to prevent some of those couples from marrying would be more difficult.  It was because of this ordinariness (and the difficulties in getting the state constitution changed) that pro-equality forces eventually succeeded in beating back the proposed amendment.  Since that time, marriage equality has come to Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Iowa, Washington, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.  Maine and California had it and lost it (and will no doubt get it again).  There are encouraging signs in New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, and Rhode Island will join the club shortly.

In eight years that is an awful lot to be proud of.  And I saw the beginning.