Thursday, June 13, 2024

A couple emerges from Cambridge City Hall in the early morning of 2004 after getting a marriage license. (Photo: Curbed Boston)

Cambridge celebrates the 20th anniversary of marriage equality this month. On May 17, 2004, City Hall opened at 12:01 a.m. and began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Marcia Hams and Susan Shepherd were the first to apply for and get a marriage license, and later exchanged vows in the first legalized same-sex marriage in the United States.

In November 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in a 4-3 decision that it is unconstitutional under the Massachusetts constitution to allow only heterosexual couples to marry. In its decision in the case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the court ruled “the right to marry means little if it does not include the right to marry the person of one’s choice.” In her opinion, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote that the “Massachusetts constitution affirms the dignity of all individuals” and “forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” This ruling made Massachusetts the first state in the United States to legalize same-sex marriage and the sixth jurisdiction in the world (after Belgium; British Columbia, Canada; the Netherlands; Ontario, Canada; and Quebec, Canada) to legalize same-sex marriage.

The court’s ruling in the Goodridge case left it unclear whether the Massachusetts decision deemed civil unions as a far enough step toward marriage equality. On Jan. 4, 2004, a majority of the justices explained that their ruling meant that only marriage could ensure equality. Civil unions would be an “unconstitutional, inferior and discriminatory status for same-sex couples. Separate is seldom, if ever, equal,” the court explained.

The original November ruling had allowed for a stayed judgment for 180 days, providing for the Massachusetts Legislature to take any action that it deemed necessary. After those 180 days had passed, Gov. Mitt Romney ordered town clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses on May 17, 2004. At midnight, with the typical three-day waiting period voided for the occasion, same-sex couples entered Cambridge City Hall. About a half-hour later, every two or three minutes, cheers erupted as each couple emerged from the building, marched down an impromptu aisle between a cheering crowd of 5,000 Cantabrigians, and same-sex marriage became a reality. Residents threw roses, rice, and even handed out cupcakes to the happy couples.

Marcia Kadish and Tanya McCloskey are married at Cambridge City Hall on May 17, 2004. (Photo: The Advocate)

Cambridge is a well-known leader in LGBTQ+ rights. The city was the first in Massachusetts to perform gender-affirming surgery in 1972. City government has also seen many “firsts,” from the first openly gay Black mayor (Kenneth Reeves) in 1992, to the first openly lesbian city councillor (Katherine Triantafillou) in 1993 to the first openly lesbian Black mayor (E. Denise Simmons) in 2008. Since the mid-20th century, many of its residents and organizations have been vocal advocates for queer and trans rights alongside those of women, people of color and immigrants.

But, while Cambridge has a reputation for progressive politics, the mood in the nation as a whole 20 years ago leaned much more toward conservatism. In February 2004, President George W. Bush called on Congress “to pass, and to send to the states for ratification, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and a woman as husband and wife.” There was opposition to the idea of “nontraditional” unions from both sides of the aisle, even in Massachusetts. Despite these reservations on the national and state levels, Cambridge decided to forge ahead in carrying out the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision.

Cambridge saw 227 couples apply for marriage licenses that first night in 2004. Another 10,000 same-sex couples were married throughout Massachusetts over the next four years, with an estimated 32,000 marriages taking place between 2004 and 2019. In the decade after the Goodridge decision, 36 states and the District of Columbia followed Massachusetts in legalizing same-sex marriage. In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled remaining state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

As we approach Pride Month in June, many organizations in Cambridge will be commemorating the anniversary of marriage equality and celebrating the many contributions of LGBTQ+ individuals to the city’s history and development. A series of Pride events at the Cambridge Public Library, the Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site and the Mass Audubon Nature Center at Magazine Beach are just a few of the many local celebrations.

History Cambridge leaders are excited to partner with The History Project on a Queer History of Cambridge Oral History Project, which will be included in a forthcoming Queer History Hub on the organization’s website. We welcome participation by answering our online survey.  The information you share will be included in our institutional archive and made available to researchers interested in Cambridge’s LGBTQ+ experience.

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.

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Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.