Ten Years Ago, the Supreme Judicial Court Legalized Gay Marriage in Massachusetts

A look at how far we've come.

Ten years ago today, the Supreme Judicial Court made Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. On November 18, 2003, the court declared, in an opinion by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, “that barring an individual from the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts constitution.”

The movement has seen enough landmark moments both before and since that there wasn’t too much ceremony surrounding the occasion. But it’s worth some brief reflection. After all, the movement looks different ten years after Goodridge than it did after, say, one. Conservatives, who saw “the American public disintegrating” and “our enemies overtaking us because we have no moral will,” to quote one talk radio host, immediately used the ruling to mobilize their base. In November 2004, John Kerry lost the presidential election by a razor-thin margin, in part because referendums in many states to ban same-sex marriage brought more George W. Bush voters to the polls. (Kerry opposed same-sex marriage at the time.)

Even five years after the ruling, Massachusetts had been joined by just three states. (New Hampshire was preparing to join them that January.) Eleven states had laws banning gay marriage. Twenty-nine had constitutional amendments.

When the 2004 ruling came down, Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat, opposed it because, “We passed the Defense of Marriage Act by an overwhelming margin on a bipartisan basis. The law still stands today, and I think it would under any court scrutiny.”

Perhaps that’s a good point at which to pivot to today’s tenth anniversary. DOMA did not withstand the Supreme Court’s scrutiny. Many of the state bans remain, but eleven states allow same sex marriage. The President of the United States endorsed it during a reelection campaign. And polls show a majority of Americans support it. 

Despite all that, in an interview reflecting on the anniversary with the Harvard Gazette, Chief Justice Marshall noted that from some perspectives, change has been a long time coming.

“You think the public has embraced same-sex marriage ‘swiftly.’ But that depends on where you’re sitting. The first claims for a state to recognize same-sex marriage were brought some 40 years ago. If you are in a same-sex relationship, one might say it took 50 years before there was any momentum toward embracing same-sex marriage,” she said.

It’s a helpful reminder that the movement’s history stretches back much longer than 10 years. But even from that perspective, the pace over this past decade remains pretty remarkable.