20 years of Marriage Equality in Massachusetts

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A wedding topper of two men looking at each other with a white rose in the background.
(Photo by Alexandra Koch)

Massachusetts celebrated 20 Years of Marriage Equality on May 17, thanks to the landmark decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health. This decision preceded the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling by 11 years, with the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. 

In 2004, at 12:01 a.m., the city of Cambridge was the first in the nation to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and at 9:15 a.m., the first couple was married. 

Cambridge takes pride in being the first, and over the course of three days, the Office of Mayor Denise Simmons, the first African American lesbian mayor in the country in 2008, and the City hosted several events with guest speakers like LGBTQ ally Congresswoman Ayanna Presley.

“It is an honor to call the Commonwealth of Massachusetts my home because of groundbreaking, humanity-centered, and justice-actualizing decisions like this one” to be the first City Hall to issue licenses to same-sex couples, Presley told the audience in the Cambridge City Hall chamber. “I often use Cambridge as a way to get my colleagues to do things.”  

Also at the events were guest speakers former Massachusetts State Representative Byron Rushing, who played a critical role in legalizing same-sex marriage, and Marcia Hams and Susan Shepard, who were the first couple to receive a same-sex marriage license in Cambridge on May 17, 2004.

“I want to give a big shout-out to all the lawyers, organizations, and activists, particularly the plaintiff couples who brought the case of marriage equality to our courts in Massachusetts,” Hams told the audience at City Hall. “I especially want to thank Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of [the] Massachusetts Supreme Court, who ruled in our favor for equality and liberty for us all, including marriage.” 

Since 2004, I’ve officiated over 250 LGBTQ couples, including Mayor Denise Simmons’s nuptials. When interviewed for this 20th anniversary, I was asked to show photos. I had to sort them into three piles as I’ve done with heterosexual couples, highlighting we are like everyone else: deceased, divorced, and still together.

Looking back at advances since 2004, such as hate crime laws, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DOMA, the legalization of marriage equality, same-sex adoption, and anti-homophobic bullying becoming a national concern, the LGBTQ community has come a long way since the first LGBTQ Pride marches. 

When you reside at the intersections of multiple identities as I do, the 20th anniversary of Marriage Equality in Massachusetts is also the 70th anniversary of the historic U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. This ruling upended this country’s “separate but equal” doctrine, adopted in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.  

However, victory comes with backlash.

On this year’s anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, African American and Latinx American students continue to attend segregated schools whether here in Boston or across the nation. Also, they overwhelmingly attend high-poverty urban ones with metal detectors. Sadly, not only has policing while schooling doubled since 2001 to the present day, but so has the school-to-prison pipeline.

As for us LGBTQ Americans, bigotry works in this political climate. Anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the U.S. has taken a hard-right political turn since Trump. And with a Trumped-up Supreme Court, of which five are pro-lifers, the uber-conservatives have eroded decades-long civil rights gains and the Constitutional mandate of separation between church and state. With Roe v Wade overturned in 2022, many of us are worried about what will happen to the goals of reproductive justice, marriage equality, our right to same-gender intimacy, and the fight to combat hundreds of  anti-LGBTQ legislation bills. The majority of them target our transgender population — to date, 552 bills in 42 states. These bills ban trans people from bathrooms, pronouns, sports, gender-affirming surgery, and drag queen story hours, to name a few.  Restricting transgender rights works for Trump’s evangelical base, hoping it’ll help the GOP in this coming presidential election. HRC has declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans.  

Marriage Equality celebrations throughout Massachusetts were joyous and worrisome. The joy of 20 years is an important milestone. However, many wonder if same-sex marriage will still exist twenty years from now. 

“We must continue to fight,” Rushing told his audience at Kendall Center Public Lobby in Cambridge. “It might appear that we cannot win in this polarized climate, but we can, and we must. I imagine a world in twenty years where gay marriage is incredibly ordinary.”