If marriage equality is a revolution, then it’s fitting that Massachusetts is the state that led the way. There was no bright beacon shining from the North Church in 2001 when Goodridge v. Department of Public Health was filed, but there was a group of brave plaintiffs and a powerful state constitution promising equality and liberty to all. Few of us foresaw that 14 years later marriage equality would become the law of our nation.
The Supreme Judicial Court’s former Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall wrote in the 2003 opinion, “The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” The morning I read those words — words that secured the freedom to marry for same-sex couples — I knew the debate about LGBT equality was forever changed.
On Friday, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy announced the Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution requires an equal right to marry for same-sex couples. I recalled the many voices from government leaders to clergy to everyday people who moved us forward: the Catholic mother who wanted her gay son to be able to marry, the Connecticut state trooper who demanded that the government protect her family should she be injured in the line of duty, the New Hampshire Marine who wanted to be his gay brother’s best man one day.
Marriage came here first based not only on the reality of gay people and same-sex couples in this Commonwealth but also on the enduring guarantees of equality under law penned by John Adams in the Constitution of 1780. Through the crucible of conversations and constitutional convention proceedings meant to undo the ruling, we overcame opposition with hard work and political leadership.
Massachusetts was the lone gay-marriage state for nearly five years. Nationally, it felt like one step forward, two back. After California won marriage, for example, Proposition 8 — taking that win away — was a terrible blow. But we kept going and won over legislators with victories in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire. Winning three states in 2009 was a turning point. In 2012, there was a four-state win at the ballot box.
Still there stood the federal government’s 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which negated the marriages of same-sex couples for federal purposes. So in 2009, here in Massachusetts — again — seven married same-sex couples and three widowers challenged DOMA in federal court, as did then-Attorney General Martha Coakley. The two cases won the first rulings that DOMA was unconstitutional, setting up its ultimate demise at the Supreme Court in June, 2013, with United States v. Windsor. The dominos began to fall as federal court after federal court rejected marriage bans.
In short order, it was clear this fundamental question of dignity and equality would reach the Supreme Court.
Tragedy after tragedy remind us that people are still targeted for discrimination and even unspeakable violence because of who they are. Friday’s decision should energize us for the urgent and ongoing work to achieve justice not only for all LGBT people but for all Americans. As we celebrate this landmark ruling, let us also rededicate ourselves to ensuring that all Americans — no matter who they are or where they live — have the same opportunities and freedom to live equally, safely, and securely.
I’ve said it before: Massachusetts wasn’t ahead of its time. It was right on time. Today is validation of that fact, and Massachusetts citizens have another badge of honor — showing America that expanding liberty is good for everyone.
Mary L. Bonauto is the civil rights project director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. She was lead counsel in the Goodridge case and argued before the Supreme Court in April.