Gay Marriage Celebrates Its 10-Year Anniversary

On May 17, 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriages.

Michael Horgan, left, and Ed Balmelli, right, sued Massachusetts for the right to marry their partners. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Michael Horgan, left, and Ed Balmelli, right, sued Massachusetts for the right to marry their partners. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

At 12:01 a.m. on May 17, 2004, same-sex couples began filling out applications for marriage licenses at Cambridge City Hall. The atmosphere was, to use the New York Times’s word, “ebullient.”

“They wore glittery party hats and boutonnieres, blew bubbles and waved signs that said ‘Love Is in the Air’ and ‘I Do Unto Others,’ the newspaper reported.

Several hours later, the rest of the state opened for business, and Massachusetts became the first to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. “In Massachusetts, there is giddiness and wariness, exhilaration and discomfort,” the Times summed up.



Hillary, left, and Julie Goodridge were lead plaintiffs in the landmark Massachusetts gay marriage lawsuit. AP.

Ten years later, its easier to remember the giddiness of that moment than the wariness. Back then, of course, the whooping celebrations came after months of contentious legal wrangling, little of it settled on that happy first day. Gov. Mitt Romney had sought a number of ways to delay the implementation of the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision. The Massachusetts legislature passed a preliminary amendment to the state constitution that, if approved by another legislative session and a referendum, would ban gay marriages. President Bush issued a statement that day, saying, “The sacred institution of marriage should not be redefined by a few activist judges,” a reminder that many parts of the country remained solidly opposed. To pessimists, it might have echoed the Hawaii judicial ruling in favor of gay marriage that had spurred backlash, including passage of the Defense of Marriage Act. And in fact, 2004 would see passage of many state bans on marriage.

“In the first few years following the decision, it wasn’t clear that we’d be able to keep it,” Michael Horgan, one of the plaintiffs in the Goodridge case remembered to the Boston Globe. “We had fierce opponents who made several attempts to take our right to marry away.”


John Burke, left, and his partner Shel Goldstein, leave Town Hall in Provincetown, Mass. (Associated Press.)

But, of course, Massachusetts didn’t amend its constitution. Ten years later, same-sex marriage is not only a right here, it’s hardly even a political debate. Mitt Romney became the face of the opposition in 2004 as he ramped up for two national campaigns. But Charlie Baker, the presumptive Republican nominee, feels no such compulsion. He released a video celebrating the ten-year anniversary, because for him, to oppose gay marriage would be to oppose his brother’s union with his husband, which is now going on 10 years.

At the time, the ebullience of that first day felt mixed with uncertainty in the future. But with the benefit of hindsight, those first marriages at Cambridge City Hall now look like the first in a movement. Much of the wariness, the sense of fragility or impermanence of the legal gains from that day, are gone, and Massachusetts is not so far out on a limb. Seventeen states now allow gay marriage. The federal government recognizes them. On “Modern Family,” an enormously popular network sitcom, two main characters tied the knot this week, and unless you’re still watching “Modern Family,” you probably didn’t notice. In states where it has been going on for some time, same-sex marriage is no longer the political act it was on that May morning in 2004. Across our Commonwealth, a lot of couples are celebrating a momentous 10-year wedding anniversary this week.

Gay Marriage Mass

Hundreds of gay couples and supporters pose in front of the State House on May 17, 2004, the one year anniversary of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. Associated Press.