Amid a crush of attacks against the LGBTQ+community, and especially transgender people, across the country, Boston announced Tuesday that it is no longer requiring residents to specify their gender or sexual identity on marriage licenses as part of a new slate of guidelines recognizing diverse gender identities.
The move comes at a time of increasing national division over so-called culture war issues, and an environment in which the Supreme Court has decided businesses can discriminate against LGBTQ+ customers, and Republicans running for president have made restricting transgender rights a centerpiece of the race.
Tuesday’s announcement in Boston is only the latest signal of the increasingly divergent approaches red and blue states are taking to address the LGBTQ+ community. In conservative places, leaders have doubled down on anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and leaned into old tropes. In more liberal places, leaders are signaling an openness to change.
“A marriage certificate is a symbol of love and commitment. But unfortunately, for people like me, their certificate’s outdated and narrow gender markers were a glaring reminder that our city still had a long way to go to acknowledging our existence,” said Kimberly Rhoten, director of policy and strategic initiatives in the mayor’s Office of Returning Citizens, who received the first gender neutral marriage certificate Tuesday.
Rhoten, who identifies as nonbinary and was married June 10, said that “with threats against the LGBTQ community intensifying across the country, Boston has sent a different message . . . your efforts have not only changed a piece of paper, you have changed lives.”
City officials pitched the changes as a way to address some of the discrimination and marginalization that LGBTQ+ residents can face, particularly transgender and nonbinary people.
Mayor Michelle Wu in a statement called the change “a huge step in building a city that is truly inclusive.”
The marriage license policy marks the first change under the new guidelines, which are designed to “support individuals whose gender and sexual identities have historically not been recognized or supported by their government.”
Boston residents who want an updated marriage license issued without sex or gender identification can request a new copy.
“It’s terrific news,” said prominent activist and longtime lobbyist Arline Isaacson, who led the fight for gay marriage on Beacon Hill in the early 2000s.
It’s fitting, officials and activists said, for the policy change to happen now in Massachusetts, where hundreds of LGBTQ+ couples made history in 2004 when the state became the first in the nation to allow same-sex marriages.
“The City of Boston is taking yet another step in ensuring that our city is more equitable and inclusive of everyone,” said Mariangely Solis Cervera, chief of equity and inclusion, at a press conference Tuesday.
About 5,000 couples apply for marriage licenses in Boston each year, Registrar Paul Chong said.
The new guidelines will specify how and when the city should collect gender-identity data from residents. They will help define key terms city staffers should know about gender identity and provide standard language that departments should use when making such inquiries, all changes that bring inclusiveness to city business beyond just marriage licenses, officials said.
“This is the first [gender-free] marriage certificate, and I think it’s fitting because you are such an important part of making these changes happen,” Chong, who officiated Rhoten’s wedding, said.
Those who have long fought for LGBTQ+ rights in Massachusetts lauded the move.
Isaacson, the chief architect of the state’s first LGBTQ+ civil rights bill, said the new policy will allow LGBTQ+ Bostonians to “live more comfortably and more honestly in our city and to marry more honestly.”
Isaacson helped lay the groundwork and set the playbook for every successful campaign that followed, including the legalization of gay marriage in 2004, antidiscrimination protections for transgender people in 2012 and 2016, and the 2018 defeat of a ballot question that would have reversed transgender protections.
She noted the hundreds of pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that have been introduced around the country, creating obstacles for youths seeking gender-affirming care, access to school sports, and LGBTQ+ books. Even in Massachusetts, school districts have seen anti-LGBTQ+ organizing in the past several years, including book bans, drag story-hour protests, and harassment at school committee meetings.
“While far too many states are talking to the extreme right against our people and our community, Michelle Wu is moving towards fairness and equality and decency and thoughtful policy,” Isaacson said. “She is a fabulous example of doing the right thing. She’s not doing it for pride month. She is just doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Boston is not alone in giving residents the option to not specify gender identity on marriage licenses.
States such as California, New York, and Washington offer marriage licenses without gender markers.
State lawmakers in Massachusetts are working to create gender neutral options for marriage licenses and other state documents. The Senate voted unanimously last month to move the legislation forward but the bill has languished in the House’s Ways and Means committee.
In a statement, Governor Maura Healey, the state’s first lesbian governor, said she is “grateful to Mayor Wu and her administration for taking an important step to better ensure that city services are inclusive, equitable, and affirming of all residents’ identities, especially the LGBTQ+ community.”
Janson Wu, executive director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), said he hopes to see the Legislature act soon.
“Boston’s decision is even more important given the concerning context of LGBTQ attacks,” he said. “While we are grateful for Boston’s leadership, we hope to see the state Legislature pass some important priorities for the LGBTQ community.”