Marriage equality is 20 years old, but it may not reach its 40th birthday

african american female groom in black suit and caucasian bride in dress in ceremony on tropical beach under wedding flover arch
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Massachusetts celebrated 20 years of marriage equality on May 17, thanks to the landmark decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health. This decision preceded the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges — which legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states — by 11 years.

 In 2004, at 12:01 a.m., the city of Cambridge was the first in the nation to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and at 9:15 a.m., the first such couple was married there. 

Cambridge takes pride in being the first to marry same-sex couples. Recently, the city and the Office of Mayor Denise Simmons — who became the first African-American lesbian mayor in the country when she first assumed office in 2008 — hosted several events with guest speakers like LGBTQ+ ally Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).

“It is an honor to call the Commonwealth of Massachusetts my home because of groundbreaking, humanity-centered, and justice-actualizing decisions like this one,” Presley told the audience in the Cambridge City Hall chamber, the first city hall to issue licenses to same-sex couples. “I often use [the example of] Cambridge as a way to get my colleagues to do things.”  

Also at the events were guest speakers, such as former Massachusetts State Representative Byron Rushing, who played a critical role in legalizing same-sex marriage, and also Marcia Hams and Susan Shepard, the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Cambridge on May 17, 2004.

“I want to give a big shout-out to all the lawyers, organizations, and activists — particularly the plaintiff couples who brought the case of marriage equality to our courts in Massachusetts,” Hams told the audience at City Hall. “I especially want to thank Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, who ruled in our favor for equality and liberty for us all.”

Since 2004, I’ve officiated weddings for over 250 LGBTQ+ couples, including  Mayor Denise Simmons’s nuptials. When interviewed for 20th-anniversary commemorative events, I was asked to show photos. I had to sort them into three piles as I’ve done with heterosexual couples — deceased, divorced, and still together — highlighting the fact that we are like everyone else.

Looking back at advances since 2004 — such as the introduction of hate crime laws, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Supreme Court revocation of the Defense of Marriage Act, the legalization of marriage equality and same-sex adoption, and nationwide campaigns against anti-homophobic bullying —the LGBTQ+ community has come a long way since the first Pride marches in 1970.

When you reside at the intersections of multiple identities, as I do, the 20th anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts also coincides with the 70th anniversary of the historic U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, which sought to end legalized segregation in public schools. This 1954 ruling upended this country’s “separate but equal” doctrine, adopted in the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.  

However, victory comes with backlash.

On this year’s anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, African American and Latinx American students continue to attend not only segregated schools — whether here in Boston or across the nation — but they overwhelmingly attend high-poverty urban schools with metal detectors. Sadly, not only has policing at schools doubled since 2001 to the present day, but so has the school-to-prison pipeline.

As for us LGBTQ+ Americans, bigotry works in this political climate. Anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in the U.S. has taken a hard-right political turn since the rise of Donald Trump. With a Trumped-up Supreme Court containing five anti-abortion justices, the uber-conservatives have eroded decades-long civil rights gains and the Constitutional separation between church and state.

With Roe v Wade overturned in 2022, many of us are worried about what will happen to the goals of reproductive justice, marriage equality, our right to same-gender intimacy, and the fight to combat hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ legislative bills. The majority of these bills target our transgender population, with 552 total anti-trans bills introduced in 42 states this year alone.

These bills seek to ban trans people from bathrooms, pronouns, sports, gender-affirming surgery, and drag queen story hours, to name a few. Restricting transgender rights works for Trump’s evangelical base, and he’s hoping it’ll help the GOP in this coming presidential election. In response, the Human Rights Campaign has declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans.  

Nevertheless, marriage equality celebrations throughout Massachusetts have remained joyous, if not a little worrisome. The joy of 20 years is an important milestone. Of course, many wonder if same-sex marriage will still exist 20 more years from now. 

“We must continue to fight,” Rushing told his audience at the Kendall Center Public Lobby in Cambridge. “It might appear that we cannot win in this polarized climate, but we can, and we must. I imagine a world in 20 years where gay marriage is incredibly ordinary.”

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