IT WAS A DAY long in the making, to say the least. May 17 marked the culmination of a three-year legal fight for civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples in Massachusetts. But when the state Supreme Judicial Court’s November 2003 ruling granting gay and lesbian couples that right took effect on Monday at the stroke of midnight, all the hard work finally paid off. Momentarily forgotten were the bruising political battles — not to mention the rhetoric about the "confusion" that would result if gay men and lesbians married before a constitutional amendment banning same-sex nuptials went before voters in November 2006. As hundreds of same-sex couples lined up to tie the knot earlier this week — up to 100 in Boston and 260 in Cambridge within the first 24 hours alone — an air of unbridled jubilation took hold across the state.
May 16, 9 p.m. to May 17, 2 a.m.
The countdown to the first gay marriages in the Bay State began in earnest last Sunday, just after 9 p.m. At about that time, as I was looking for parking on Mass Ave in Cambridge, I witnessed a scene reminiscent of so many that had played out at the Massachusetts constitutional convention weeks earlier. On one side of the street, hundreds of same-sex couples were congregated in front of Cambridge City Hall, waiting to apply for marriage licenses. On the other side, a handful of protesters — four, to be exact — trumpeted viciously homophobic messages. One woman, who I later learned is related to notorious anti-gay minister Fred Phelps, held a placard in her left hand that read GOD HATES FAGS! In her right, FAGS HATE GOD! As I drove past, she was shouting, "Homos will go to hell!"
By the time I parked and walked to the scene at 9:30 p.m., her hateful harangues were lost in the din of revelry. The mood was electric. Horns, whistles, and music saturated the air. Hundreds of same-sex couples were camped out in a line snaking down the building’s front steps and onto the sidewalk. Thousands of their friends and relatives gathered nearby. Many sported party hats, blew bubbles, or tooted on party favors to celebrate the newlyweds-to-be.
In the midst of the excitement, I found Greg Llacer and Doug Walker, a Boxborough couple of 10 years, quietly standing in line. The pair looked remarkably similar, what with their brilliant blue eyes and wide smiles. Both wore baseball caps: Greg’s came from MIT; Doug’s was a Red Sox hat. They told me they had come to Cambridge because of the city’s willingness to implement the landmark SJC ruling as soon as legally possible, at midnight — a gesture they called "welcoming." Besides, they would have had to wait another 24 hours to apply for a license in Boxborough, where the clerk’s office would be closed on May 17 for town elections. And they just couldn’t wait to tie the knot any longer.
"We’re in love," Llacer told me, clutching the gifts he’d accumulated over the evening from random well-wishers — a red rose, a green glow stick. "This is our day, and we want to be a part of history."
Within an hour, Llacer and Walker did just that when they and hundreds of other same-sex couples began filing into City Hall. Inside, officials had done their best to commemorate the historic event. They’d set up a three-tier wedding cake. They’d booked the Boston Women’s Rainbow Chorus and scheduled an eclectic celebration with speeches and toasts in the city-council chamber, MC’d by Mayor Michael Sullivan. The guests of honor — gay and lesbian couples — jammed into the chamber and draped themselves over an upper-floor balcony to take in the festivities. Those who couldn’t witness the party wandered through the corridors, hand in hand, awestruck. Some choked back tears. Others had perma-grins on their faces. Still others burst into the Dixie Cups’ "Chapel of Love," which would become the signature soundtrack of the next 24 hours: "Going to the chapel/And we’re gonna get married."
By midnight, the party atmosphere was in full swing. People literally counted down the seconds until 12:01 a.m., when Cambridge city clerk Margaret Drury issued the state’s first same-sex marriage license to Susan Shepard and Marcia Hams, who had arrived a full 24 hours earlier to secure their spot in line. When Shepard and Hams emerged from the clerk’s office — their license prominently displayed — they were met by a horde of reporters and cameramen.
Standing on the sidelines, watching the media mob, Jan Shafer, flanked by her partner of 17 years, Lisa Schweig, and their two young children, mumbled that she hoped Shepard and Hams knew "what they were getting into" by being the first. She expressed the contradictory emotions felt by many of the couples who turned out that night: "There are moments when this feels personal, and moments when it feels way outside myself."
I made my way outside the building, and discovered that in 90 minutes the crowd had grown exponentially. Thousands of people had gathered on the lawn and spilled out onto Mass Ave. They formed a receiving line along City Hall steps. And every time a newly licensed gay or lesbian couple walked out the front door, the crowd erupted with frenzied joy. They hooted, whistled, and clapped. They tossed roses and irises at the almost-wed. They waved signs that read CONGRATS! and MAZEL TOV! Even people randomly walking out of the building (like me) received star treatment from the indiscriminately ebullient crowd.
Couples strolled through the line, hand in hand. Some indulged the spirited crowd by sharing passionate, wet kisses. Others held up their marriage-license applications triumphantly in the air. It felt like being a celebrity for a day, Danielle Murray admitted to me. She and her partner, Catherine Schaber, of Jamaica Plain, had waded through the throng, flushed and invigorated. The first hours of gay marriage in Massachusetts had far exceeded their expectations.
"I’m so excited, I’m shaking," said Murray.
"It’s amazing," Schaber agreed.
Still, they were tired and, as teachers, they had to be up at the crack of dawn. So did I. At around 2 a.m., I left the love fest behind, anticipating similar events outside Boston City Hall within hours.
May 17, 7:30 to 10:30 a.m.
The mood at Boston City Hall on Monday morning stood in stark contrast to that in Cambridge the night before. In front of the building, a line of 50 or so couples had just started to form. People appeared to be cheerful yet calm, as if they’d recently woken up and hadn’t drunk enough coffee. Passers-by silently took in the scene along police barricades cordoning off the area from the rest of the plaza. Gray clouds contributed to the subdued atmosphere.
Stephen Pepper, 54, and Sam Goldfarb, 73, sipped hot tea as they waited in line. The Jamaica Plain couple were dressed identically, in black pants and black shirts, save for Pepper’s priestly white collar. A minister of the United Church of Christ, Pepper told me he had come downtown for two reasons. First and foremost, of course, he wanted to apply for a license to wed his long-time partner. But he also wanted to serve as a "spiritual presence" for gays and lesbians going to and from City Hall — should they encounter "active protesters."
The pair met at church seven years ago. They’d struck up a conversation sitting in a pew, and, as Goldfarb put it, "We haven’t stopped talking since." A white-haired man with a gravelly voice, Goldfarb seemed giddy on his marriage-application day, quipping that he and Pepper had awakened "before God gets up" to secure their spot in line (52nd). "I never thought I would see this day," he said. He alluded to Scripture to describe the moment: "It feels like ‘This is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad.’"
After an hour, things on the plaza began to percolate. At 8:30 a.m., word spread that Boston mayor Tom Menino had greeted three of the seven plaintiff couples in the Goodridge case and escorted them to the City Clerk’s Office to apply for their licenses. Within minutes, the building’s entrance was teeming with people. Some, like Chris Sciah, were merely curious about the couples who’d made the day possible. In fact, Sciah was so curious that he drove all the way from Niagara Falls, New York — "the honeymoon capital of the world," in his words — to get a look at the plaintiffs and witness the rest of the day’s events.
But most of the people cramming the doorway were members of the press. The throng of reporters, television crews, and photographers had grown steadily — everyone itching to capture the plaintiffs leaving City Hall. By 9:30 a.m., the press had spotted Menino and his guests. There was Mary Bonauto, the attorney who litigated the Goodridge case. There were lead plaintiffs Hillary and Julie Goodridge, as well as David Wilson and Robert Compton, and Michael Horgan and Ed Balmelli. Immediately, the stars became lost in the media mob.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
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