State's Gay Marriage Day Arrives, and Vineyard Couples Celebrate


For most couples headed down the wedding aisle, this is one of those nagging details - an errand that claims more time and attention than a couple wants to spare.

But for Sue Dawson and Alison Shaw, it was a task to savor.

Filling out the three-page notice of intention to marry at the Oak Bluffs town clerk's office early Monday morning, this couple knew they were part of history in the making.

"It's a formality, but it's a formality we've never gotten to do before," said Ms. Dawson, peering over the shoulder of her partner of 17 years as she filled out the section headed "Party A."

Ms. Dawson and Ms. Shaw joined hundreds of gay couples from across Massachusetts in exercising their new right to apply for a marriage license this week. This state is the first and only in the nation to extend such rights to same-sex couples. Uncertainty clouded the months leading up to May 17 as some top state officials worked until the final hour to block their right to wed.

"We were in a wait-and-see mode," said Ms. Dawson.

Just a few minutes past 9 o'clock Monday morning, Oak Bluffs assistant town clerk Laura Johnston handed Ms. Dawson and Ms. Shaw an application and directed them to a vacant desk. Periodically Ms. Johnson pulled out the pamphlet How to Obtain a Marriage License in Massachusetts - a brochure decorated with dancing pilgrim bride and bridegrooms on the front.

"I guess there are some things we've yet to fix," she said, referring to the brochure. "At least we jumped to the more important step of extending marriage rights [to gay couples]."

In the last month, the state office of vital statistics stripped the old marriage license applications of the terms "bride and groom." The form also now inquires whether the applicant is already a part of a civil union or domestic partnership. "If so, has it been dissolved?" the form asks. No one in the Oak Bluffs town clerk's office Monday morning was quite sure how a couple goes about "dissolving" a civil union.

There are plenty of unanswered questions that town clerks and same-sex couples must sort through in the coming months. But on Monday morning, declaring the intention to marry was a simple and quiet affair for a couple that has shared a life together for nearly two decades. Almost 10 years ago, Ms. Dawson and Ms. Shaw celebrated a religious wedding ceremony, and the couple became parents of their first child more than eight years ago.

"This doesn't change how I view our relationship, but it will for a whole slew of people," said Ms. Dawson.

"It's putting a rubber stamp on our commitment," Ms. Shaw said.

"It's the state legitimizing it," Ms. Dawson added.

The state's nod of approval is no small matter for a couple who have been paying $400 more a month in health insurance than families with heterosexual parents. This marriage license will also guarantee Ms. Shaw the right to accompany Ms. Dawson in the event of an ambulance ride to the hospital.

Ms. Dawson and Ms. Shaw will hold a small wedding celebration this season on the tenth anniversary of their religious wedding ceremony. Ms. Dawson's father, Paul, will officiate. Special wedding bands are being made for them in California to accompany the set they've worn for a decade.

"We're not going to have all the bells and whistles. I don't know what we're wearing yet, let's put it that way," said Ms. Dawson, explaining how casual a wedding affair theirs will be. In lieu of gifts, the couple has asked friends and family to make donations to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the group that brought the discrimination lawsuit which eventually earned the Massachusetts Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage last November.

Perhaps the first same-sex marriage ceremony on the Vineyard was held Tuesday at the Unitarian Universalist Society. Janice Casey and Rita Brown, co-owners of the MV Gourmet and partners for nine years, obtained a waiver for the three-day waiting period at district court on Monday and were married in a small gathering the next day.

"It's something I never thought I'd live to see in my lifetime," said Ms. Brown. "It's exhilarating, it's very validating to have our partnership recognized."

Ms. Brown said she was reassured that she and Ms. Casey, both over 50, are now legally protected in the event of hospitalization and any caregiving arrangements that would result.

"It's a privilege to live in this time," Ms. Brown said. "To pick up the papers and see the headlines - we bought every newspaper we could."

Hal Garneau of Oak Bluffs met Dan Waters when both were freshmen at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. They have been together ever since. They celebrate their anniversary each August, remembering the date when they first moved in together in their sophomore year.

Dan, who grew up in Brazil, the son of an American corporate executive, returned to the Island with Hal when the two completed their college years. The two pursued separate careers for a long time before joining in their graphics business, the Indian Hill Press, a little more than a decade ago.

Mr. Waters said this week that watching the commonwealth's struggle with the issue of gay marriage has been an emotional roller-coaster ride.

"This is one of those cases where the law applies directly to the personal arena of people's lives," he said. "Normally, what you watch on the news is just one more topic of conversation. But this affects how we will spend the rest of our lives.

"It's been two steps forward and one step back - each bit of good news has been accompanied by a dozen warnings that this could be taken back at any minute. There was always the very real suspicion and fear that this was not going to happen. It wasn't really until midnight struck and they actually started issuing marriage licenses that Hal and I dared to believe this was happening."

As they absorbed the realization that they would be allowed to marry, Mr. Waters and Mr. Garneau discussed their options and decided they wanted to solemnize their relationship on the date of their 30th anniversary, this August.

Mr. Waters acknowledged that this decision involves some risk - some legislators are working hard to rescind their right to marry. But he observed, "Part of the right to get married is the right to choose when you get married. If we jumped the gun and just got married the minute we were allowed to, that's not living free."

Mr. Waters admitted to a certain discomfort in discussing such personal issues with the newspaper, but said he believes it's important to keep a healthy public conversation going. "In 2006," he pointed out, "Massachusetts voters are going to have to decide whether or not their neighbors, who got married in 2004 and 2005, will be allowed to stay married. I think it's important that people begin to discuss this now."

May 17 did not bring the fanfare on the Island that it did in some other Massachusetts communities. Gay couples camped out overnight in front of town halls across the state Sunday, anxious to be among the first to secure a certificate denied for centuries. In Cambridge, the town clerk began processing applications at midnight, and hundreds of couples celebrated the occasion with a reception later that morning.

Cheryl Stark and Margery Meltzer, West Tisbury residents, were anxious to be the first to apply for a license in a town they've called home for more than three decades.

"When we got there just after nine o'clock, Prudy [Whiting] joked that she'd been waiting for us since midnight," said Ms. Stark, who jointly owns CB Stark Jewelers in Tisbury with Ms. Meltzer.

"It feels really good to be a part of history in the making. To not feel any shame and to get closer to equal rights is a big deal. Not that we are going to say vows that are going to change the way we've been committed to one another for 32 years. The meaning and the piece of paper is the political part of marriage that we're addressing," said Ms. Stark.

The couple will be wed at a small ceremony in June, on the 32nd anniversary of their partnership.

On Monday, the town clerk's office in Oak Bluffs processed three license applications, including Ms. Dawson and Ms. Shaw's. Chilmark handled two, as did West Tisbury, including Ms. Stark and Ms. Meltzer's. In Tisbury, the town clerk only received one application.

In Edgartown, two couples, one local and one from Northhampton, applied and received their licenses on Monday.

State law requires a three-day waiting period after a couple files their intention unless a judge waives the delay. In order to receive their license, couples must also complete necessary blood work and bring a doctor's certificate with them.

Jessie Royce Hill and Nis Kildegaard contributed reporting to this article.