Fifteen years ago, on May 17, 2004, same-sex couples and their allies in Massachusetts gathered at city halls around the state to obtain marriage licenses and celebrate their newly instated rights.
This was made possible by a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling six months earlier that determined the Massachusetts Constitution guarantees the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples and made Massachusetts the first state to achieve marriage equality.
At the time, marriage equality was a new issue.
“In the mid-'90s there really was no thought to marriage because it didn't seem feasible or possible within our lifetimes,” said Steven Kleinedler, who married shortly after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts.
The road to marriage equality began in April 2001 when Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a nonprofit group of attorneys that works on LBGTQIA+ issues, started a suit against the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on behalf of seven gay and lesbian couples who had been denied marriage licenses.
The case would become known as Goodridge v. The Department of Public Health, named after plaintiffs Julie and Hillary Goodridge.
The case was in many ways an uphill battle. While supporters of same-sex marriage were vocal and numerous, so were its opponents. State leaders such as former Gov. Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran were adamantly against it.
At the time, no other state had legalized same-sex marriage. The biggest advancement toward marriage equality had been the Baker v. Vermont decision in 1999 which had legalized same-sex civil unions in the state.
Religious opposition to same-sex marriage was rampant, especially in Catholic communities around the state. Organizations like the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Family Institute mounted strong legal and grassroots efforts to stop, delay and eventually reverse same-sex marriage legalization.
In May of 2002, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Thomas Connolly dismissed the case. He wrote that he believed nothing in the state constitution guaranteed same-sex marriage and that procreation was central to the institution of marriage. He also insisted that the Legislature should handle the issue.
GLAD and the plaintiffs rebutted Connolly’s decision by appealing directly to the SJC.
GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto represented the plaintiffs in front of the court, led by then Chief Justice Margaret Marshall.
''This court should do so [affirm the right of same-sex marriage] because it is the right thing to do,'' said Bonauto at a hearing in March 2003, as recorded by The Boston Globe. ''The exclusion of the plaintiffs from marriage . . . violates the fundamental right that these plaintiffs enjoy with all others in this commonwealth.''
On November 18, 2004, the SJC ruling was passed down, the majority opinion written by Marshall herself. They ruled four to three that barring same-sex couples from marrying violates the Massachusetts Constitution.
“The question before us is whether, consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth may deny the protections, benefits, and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry. We conclude that it may not,” wrote Marshall. “The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second class citizens.”
But the decision gave the Legislature 180 days to comply with the ruling, after which same-sex marriage would become legal regardless. During this time, opponents tried many means of stopping its legalization.
Multiple attempts were made by lawyers to get judges to rule that the implementation of the ruling should be delayed, some just days before the ruling would become active.
But finally the day came, and thousands of couples across the state were married just in the first week and month.
“We knew that we would get married,” said Marcia Brennan, who obtained her marriage license on the first day same-sex marriage became legal. “There was no bended knee or anything. We had been together 15 years and we were just ecstatic that in our lifetime we could be legally married.”
Some cities, such as Cambridge, opened their offices at midnight on the day of and held a celebration. Attendees said protesters were few and far between.
“We come around the corner and there's city hall and there's these thousands of people in all these big trucks with cameras and lights,” recalled Mary Margaret Moore, Brennan’s wife. “As we crossed the street and went into the crowd and said 'Well where do you go to get the licenses?’ word traveled and the crowd parted and they started guiding us through and hugging us and giving us flowers and ribbons all the way up the stairs.“
Couples who were married at the time said many rushed to get married because they were unsure if the effects of the ruling would be permanent.
“We all felt like they could pull the rug up under this at any minute, so we're gonna try and rush because it's gonna be harder to do that once we've got this legal document,” said Michelle Johnson, who was married days after same-sex marriage became legal.
Though opponents of same-sex marriage did not cease their efforts to turn back the clock on the ruling for several years afterward, they were ultimately defeated thanks to the efforts of activists and legislators.
According to the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, over 32,000 same-sex marriages have taken place in Massachusetts since the ruling, with over 6,000 occurring in just the first year.
Bonauto went on to argue for same-sex couples in the Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health case which legalized same-sex marriage in Connecticut, and ultimately in the Obergefell v. Hodges case which made it legal nationwide.
In 2008, Connecticut became the second state to achieve marriage equality, followed by Vermont and Iowa the next year, then New Hampshire, New York, Maine and Washington, until a cascade of states legalized same-sex marriage every year until 2015 when it became legal federally.
The bold and unprecedented decision by the SJC is considered by many to have been essential in emboldening the fight for marriage equality and influencing other states, and ultimately the country, to follow suit.
The decision has also proved beneficial to many. Kleinedler said that being legally married greatly helped him when his husband passed away by aiding him in legal matters such as next-of-kin laws, settling estates and dealing with funeral homes.
“I went through the same cycle of grief that I would have had we not been legally married,” Kleinedler said. “I just didn't have to deal with the, you know, all the extra stuff that you have to deal with if you're not legally married.”
Johnson said people are now less likely to use “coded language” to mask her romantic relationship with her wife.
“I have been really pleasantly surprised at how differently people treat you when you're officially married and how eager and willing people have been to welcome gay people into the fold,” said Myrna Greenfield, Johnson’s wife. “It really feels like it's made a big difference. I feel like I'm part of society in a way that I felt like I wasn't.”
But even if the difference is just a feeling, couples say this can be just as important.
“It's that normalcy — feeling I'm not different than everybody else,” said Brennan. “I just love a woman. But I'm not any different.”