Several months ago, walking past Cambridge City Hall, I was surprised to find myself teary-eyed. Ten years ago — May 17, 2004 — a simple but profound event took place there. For the first time in American history, same-sex couples were granted marriage licenses and treated as equals under the law. That simple act, and the campaign that so many of us in Massachusetts built and executed, energized a national movement that is now driving rapidly towards the Supreme Court for national resolution that could happen as soon as next year.
A decade later, the campaign that protected the freedom to marry in Massachusetts holds lessons for the rest of the country.
In the months leading up to May 17, 2004, we had been battling in the State House to fend off a constitutional amendment that would strip away the marriage equality granted by the state’s highest court. At the same time, lawyers at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) were swatting down lawsuits to stop the marriage ruling from ever going into effect. But by May 16, the fighting came to a pause, and hundreds of couples stood in line in front of the Cambridge City Hall to collect their marriage licenses at 12:01 the next morning
I will never forget the electric scene that evening as thousands of well-wishers joined the couples, first to wait and then to erupt in celebration. And that was just the beginning. A gorgeous spring morning awaited hundreds more on Boston City Hall Plaza the next day, when couples emerged with gigantic smiles, holding up their licenses for all to see. The hundreds of onlookers, gay and straight, cheered every single time. When the first plaintiff couple married, Mary Bonauto, the relentless GLAD attorney who won the lawsuit, could not stop crying in the pews of the Arlington Street Church.
Today, 59 percent of Americans support the freedom to marry, which is now the law in 17 states and the District of Columbia. In just the last year, we’ve had 12 consecutive victories in federal court, following the Supreme Court’s historic ruling that ended the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. Even if we haven’t yet won the whole thing, we are heading in the right direction.
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