Why Massachusetts Was So Important to Marriage Equality

Ten years ago, GLAD lawyer Mary Bonauto triumphed in the first case to allow same-sex marriage. Here she reflects back on that key decision and how far we've come since then

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A pro-gay-marriage banner is held in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on March 26, 2013

It’s safe to say that on Nov. 17, 2003, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, a Massachusetts marriage-equality lawsuit, was on the radar of only a handful of people — its plaintiffs, lawyers, LGBT legal advocates and some court watchers. But when the decision was issued the next day, Nov. 18, international headlines spread the news that Massachusetts would be the first state in the U.S. where same-sex couples could legally marry.

That decision enabled loving, committed couples — some together for decades, some raising children — to legally join together in front of a community of friends and family, and to come before their government as equals. It was a profound moment for gay people and same-sex couples who finally could make the choice to marry or not.

(MORE: These Are the Next Gay-Marriage Battlegrounds)

The decision also set off a decade of discussion as people considered and reconsidered their views while both supporters and opponents engaged in each branch of government. In states where we could, supporters filed lawsuits, as courts have always played a key role in securing our constitutional promises of equality and freedom for minorities. In addition to Massachusetts, top courts in Connecticut, Iowa, and California all upheld the right to marry along with New Jersey’s recent ruling that civil unions cannot provide equality. Elsewhere, we went to legislatures, starting in Massachusetts where, despite the intense heat after the Goodridge decision, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers saw the common humanity of our families and defeated repeated attempts to retreat from that ruling. In 2009, three New England states became the first to approve of marriage legislatively, as six other states and the District of Columbia have now.

We also engaged directly with voters at the ballot box, defensively in most states as some legislators and “family” groups rushed to amend their state constitutions and try to shut down the policy conversation about same-sex couples securing government marriage licenses. While we lost at the ballot box repeatedly, including after high-profile campaigns in California and Maine, we now know that many people have since changed their minds. In 2012, we broke that losing streak to win marriage equality at the ballot in Maryland, Washington and my home state of Maine — and turned away a constitutional ban in Minnesota. The tears we shed then were tears of joy.

No matter the context, the one constant in each effort is real people — people who simply seek to make the unique commitment that is marriage. Whether plaintiffs telling their stories in court pleadings, constituents inviting their representatives over for a family dinner, couples going door-to-door in ballot campaigns and finding common ground about marriage, all these efforts tapped into the shared ethic that we aspire to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated.

(MORE: Pride and Prejudice: An Interactive Timeline of the Fight for Gay Rights)

Because of Massachusetts, we had the ultimate, unanswerable argument: marriage itself. As soon as couples started marrying, the world was confronted with the reality, the ordinariness, the humanity, of two people in love committing, legally, to be together for life. In the words of Massachusetts representative Byron Rushing: “The best advocacy for marriage is marriage.”

As more and more states have supported the freedom and liberty of same-sex couples to join in marriage — today they are 16 states plus the District of Columbia — the more people experience the joy in that couple’s commitment and hope for the future, and the more we all see that we have nothing to fear. But that does not mean that nationwide marriage equality is to be taken for granted. On the contrary, we need to have that many more conversations in the 30-plus states that deny marriage to same-sex couples, and we need to reverse state constitutional amendments as we slowly and methodically build the case for a Supreme Court determination that the freedom to marry can no longer be denied to this group of Americans.

This work takes determination and courage. As Margaret Marshall, former Massachusetts chief justice and author of the Goodridge decision, said in a recent interview, “When the seven couples in Goodridge started their case, no state had recognized their right to marry. It takes a great deal of courage to explain to your parents and your children and your friends that you are going to challenge a long-established reality.” But we won’t make change any other way.

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Bonauto is a lawyer and civil rights project director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders who argued for the plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the case in which Massachusetts became the first state whose high court ruled that excluding gay people from civil marriage violates equal protection guarantees. The views expressed are solely her own.