May 17, 2024 - News

Mass. celebrates 20 years of same-sex marriage

two women celebrate getting married

More than 260 applied for marriage licenses at Cambridge City Hall at midnight on May 17, 2004. Photo: Rick Friedman/Getty Images.

Massachusetts is hitting a milestone Friday: the first 20th wedding anniversaries for same-sex couples.

Why it matters: The pioneers who packed churches, city halls and clerks' offices across the commonwealth in 2004 are looking back at two decades of legal recognition and the rapid acceptance of gay marriage nationwide.

What they're saying: "Everybody loves a wedding. It's not just people on the left who love weddings, it's people on the right who love weddings. That helped a lot," Gina Nortonsmith told Axios.

  • She and her wife Heidi were among the 12 co-plaintiffs in the case that challenged the state to give gay and lesbian couples marriage licenses.

Flashback: In 2003, the state's highest court ruled that barring same-sex couples from civil marriage violated the state constitution in the landmark Goodridge v. Department of Public Health case.

  • And after a political battle against then-Gov. Mitt Romey and conservative lawmakers, the first marriage licenses for same-sex couples were issued May 17, 2004.

Flash forward and the first couples that said "I do" in 2004 are preparing to celebrate their 20th anniversaries.

  • Instead of the frenzied ceremony they had in 2004, where the press captured every moment of the walk from Boston City Hall to a nearby hotel, Goodridge plaintiffs Ed Balmelli and Mike Horgan have planned a simple cookout for their 20th anniversary.
  • The Arlington Street Church in Boston will hold an event celebrating the marriages tomorrow.

By the numbers: An estimated 32,000 or more same-sex couples have married in Massachusetts over the past two decades, according to the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics.

  • Massachusetts and other states that legalized gay marriage early saw more stable relationships, higher earnings and higher rates of home ownership for same-sex couples, according to a report from RAND and UCLA.
  • The report found "no negative effects on marriage, divorce or cohabitation among different-sex couples" in the last 20 years.
Two men get married as photographers look on
Press photographers captured the moment Ed Balmelli and Mike Horgan said "I do." Photo courtesy of Balmelli and Horgan.

The big picture: Massachusetts stood alone for a few years, but eventually, the ruling sparked a domino effect.

  • The 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges made it legal for same-sex couples to marry nationwide.

The intervening months between the Goodridge decision and the first day wedding certificates were issued were tense as marriage equality opponents fought to block the unions.

  • Couples, venues and municipalities didn't know until the last minute where the law would stand on would-be wedding days.
  • Unsure if their celebration would be a full wedding or just a party, the Nortonsmiths told their two children that "either way, we're going to have cake."

What's next: The couples that spoke to Axios about that step forward in 2004 haven't become complacent about the civil rights afforded to the LGBTQ community.

  • They say attacks on transgender rights and limitations on access to gender-affirming care are ongoing battles in the Bay State and nationwide.

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