Marriage rights for same-sex couples took less than a generation to race from a concept that triggered emotional battles on Beacon Hill to the law of the land.
Legal and political analysts called the velocity of the societal change unprecedented, pointing to earlier rights evolutions that took decades. Even the country’s most influential progressive politicians only fully embraced the shift within the past few years, an illustration of how swiftly the notion of same-sex marriage traveled from fringe social issue to mainstream prevalence.
The movement has roots in Massachusetts dating to a little over a decade ago, when lawmakers struggled to react to a 2003 Supreme Judicial Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. The state’s lawmakers were unsure of their political footing and distinctly aware that Massachusetts would, for a time, stand alone as the only state in the nation to recognize such rights.
After gay marriages began in Massachusetts in 2004, there was an initial backlash across the country as many states imposed constitutional bans. By 2013, that number had swelled to 30, according to a Globe compilation of state policies.
Other states sought a middle ground by creating civil unions or domestic partnerships, an idea entertained here but discarded in favor of the right to marry. At one point in 2012, 12 states had instituted arrangements that fell short of full- fledged marriage rights.
In recent months, though, marriage rights have expanded with momentum fueled by the courts, along with an evolution in both the public’s opinion and that of their elected representatives. The Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. By the beginning of 2015, same-sex marriage was legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
“In a dozen years it’s become constitutionally required throughout the country. That’s remarkable,” said Charles Fried, a Harvard Law professor who was solicitor general under President Reagan and served on the state Supreme Judicial Court in the 1990s.
Fried said acceptance of gay people has “waxed and waned over the millennia” but called their inclusion in marriage brand new.
“The Supreme Court dissenters are right when they say this is an utter novelty. So it’s an amazing thing that it has happened so quickly after such a long and universal history of not happening,” he said.
While Friday’s court decision was widely anticipated by court handicappers, the outcome of the Massachusetts legislative fight was, until the very moment of a crucial 2007 vote, far from assured. At a radically different time in public opinion and political climate, the notion of gay couples getting married was foreign, almost exotic.
In the wake of the 2003 state Supreme Judicial Court decision, state lawmakers embarked on three and a half years of frequently emotional debate and high-stakes maneuvering behind the scenes, often with fiery demonstrators on both sides of the issue serving as a backdrop.
“We knew something you never normally know in the middle of a legislative fight,” Arline Isaacson, a veteran lobbyist and gay rights activist who helped marshal votes in favor of same-sex marriage, told the Globe last year. “We knew we were in the middle of history.”
Many lawmakers feared that opposition within their districts would materialize into electoral challenges and, ultimately, their political doom. In 2004, that year’s eventual Democratic Party presidential nominee, then-US senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, had endorsed amending the state Constitution to ban gay marriage and secure civil unions — a position he would later recant.
Even President Obama, hailed by progressives when he ran in 2008, did not publicly declare support for gay marriage until near the end of his first term, in 2012. The current Democratic presidential front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, would follow suit a year later, six years after Massachusetts lawmakers took the defining vote.
Beginning with the 2003 Supreme Judicial Court ruling, much of the debate centered in the State House, meaning that public officials — some of them elected by just a few thousand voters — were wrestling with an emotionally charged issue under an often white-hot national spotlight.
Some delivered tearful floor speeches. Others described painful rifts with family members. One said she was thrown out of her church choir. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, then a state representative, was criticized from the altar of a church in his district for his support of gay rights.
In the end, after huddling for strategy sessions in churches and State House offices, the backers of same-sex marriage were able to pry away just enough votes from opponents. The intense politicking culminated in the June 2007 vote to reject a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
It fell just five votes short of qualifying for the popular ballot, where its fate would have been decided by the state’s voters.
The day of that constitutional convention, when the House and Senate met jointly, was as tense a day as many longtime State House watchers can remember.
Therese Murray, then the Senate president who oversaw the convention, stationed two senators on either side of the rostrum to prevent opponents from disrupting the proceedings, she recalled on Friday. “People were very emotional and wanted to stop the process,” she said.
That vote came about only after a sudden change in the state’s political leadership. When the 2003 decision came down and in the votes immediately following, Beacon Hill’s chief power centers had been controlled by three men who were gay-marriage opponents of varying degrees: Governor Mitt Romney, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran.
By the time of the 2007 vote, they had been succeeded by three proponents: Governor Deval Patrick, Murray, and House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. Even then, there was division among the leaders over how to proceed and concern about whether they had the votes to bat down the amendment.
After the tally, Patrick and DiMasi exulted on the steps of the State House, cheered by supporters while opponents looked on in dismay from across Beacon Street.
Murray walked out to join the celebration but turned around and walked back inside when she saw the split between the rejoicing and those with sincerely held conscientious or religious objections.
“You had two sides of the street,” Murray said. “I knew a lot of people on the other side, and they were devastated. ... Now, some of them have changed their minds.”
Murray organized a group photo in her outer office. All of the senators were invited, she said but only those who had opposed the measure attended.
“It was subdued, because we knew that what we had done was monumental,” she said.
Among her top allies and a key strategist in the effort was Stanley C. Rosenberg, now Senate president, the state’s first openly gay legislative leader.
Earlier this year, Rosenberg said the state’s lieutenant governor, Republican Karyn Polito, would officiate at his wedding. In 2007, as a Shrewsbury representative, Polito had voted in favor of putting the ban on same-sex marriage on the ballot.
Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.