Four years ago this summer, Paul Gamson was married on the Vineyard to his partner of almost five years, Richard Knight. But as residents of Chilmark and Oakland, Calif., their marital status shifted as they moved between homes — until last Thursday.
“Not married? Married? At least I know what box to check in California and Massachusetts,” Mr. Gamson said following a 4-3 ruling from the Republican-majority California Supreme Court which struck down the statewide ban on same-sex marriage.
When, on May 17, 2002, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled it was unconstitutional to bar homosexual couples to marry in the state, the commonwealth became the first state in the nation, and only the sixth jurisdiction in the world, to legalize same-sex marriage.
Nationwide, champions of gay rights cheered and, in Massachusetts, same-sex couples, historically denied the right to wed, lined up to get their marriage licenses. Since the ruling, more than 10,000 gay couples have married in the state. Forty of those ceremonies occurred on Martha’s Vineyard.
This month, nearly four years to the day after Massachusetts made history, the state of California followed suit.
“It just reminded me how sad it is that there are only two states in this country which recognize the fundamental right to live with the person that you love,” said Jan Buhrman, an Island caterer who was in California for a food conference when the decision passed. “We forget about it because we think, ‘It’s not pertinent to me,’” she said.
In the summer following the 2004 decision, The Kitchen Porch, Ms. Buhrman’s company, catered 13 same-sex weddings on the Vineyard. “I remember at the time how important it was and, being there, how much more meaningful it was than a heterosexual wedding,” she said.
In the summers which have followed, the pace has slowed. Ms. Buhrman now averages one same-sex wedding per year. But she thinks that number may go up following the California ruling. “I would think we could possibly have some people from California wanting to get married on Martha’s Vineyard,” she said. “I’m only doing one so far this year, but maybe the phones will start ringing.”
The California court’s decision takes effect Saturday, June 14.
The 2004 Massachusetts decision made it legal for same-sex couples who are state residents to get married. City and town clerks are barred from issuing licenses to couples from outside the state. When the California ruling goes into effect, Massachusetts clerks will be able to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples resident in California.
“The personal impact of the ruling was surprising. It really felt like it made a big difference,” Mr. Gamson said of the Massachusetts ruling which allowed him to marry Mr. Knight. “It became something we wanted to do pretty quickly. It made me more aware of what had been denied me,” he said.
With an official marriage license come benefits often taken for granted by other couples, among them: authorizing emergency medical treatment for a spouse, inheriting property without tedious paperwork, and access to less expensive health insurance.
Mr. Gamson and Mr. Knight were married at Mr. Gamson’s family home in Chilmark. “I have a long connection to the Vineyard through my family,” Mr. Gamson said. “It was kind of a no-brainer.” The couple decorated with Island sunflowers, bought their rings from C.B. Stark Jewelers in Vineyard Haven and hired Island caterer Wendy Jenkinson. Two years later, their daughter, Reba Sadie Gamson-Knight, conceived through in vitro fertilization, was born on the Island.
Now Mr. Gamson’s marriage will be officially recognized in both of his home states. “It’s great. First of all, it affirms our choices of where we live. It’s a little bit like, ‘Oh finally,’” he said. “For me, it mainly has to do with family recognition and affirmation for our current child and maybe future child,” he continued.
In the year same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, 23 couples were married on the Vineyard, with at least two weddings occurring in each Island town. Four same-sex couples tied the knot on the Island in 2005 and four were married in 2006. In 2007, seven couples took their vows. There have been no same-sex weddings to date this year, but Ms. Buhrman and Island baker Liz Kane of Cakes by Liz both said they are working with gay couples for summertime weddings.
The Lambert’s Cove Inn & Restaurant in West Tisbury, a popular venue for Island weddings, also is reporting an upcoming ceremony. “The fourth or fifth one we will have done is coming up in August of this year,” said Scott Jones who, along with his partner Kell Hicklin, owns and runs the inn.
The inn averages 6 to 12 weddings per year, depending on the size. Usually, only one of those is for a same-sex couple. “There hasn’t been a big push to do them here, but we’ve always hosted some, whether they’ve been legal or not,” Mr. Jones said.
The proprietor speculates that more gay couples look to locales on the mainland, such as Provincetown on the Cape, when planning a wedding. “It’s hard and expensive to do a wedding on the Vineyard,” he said.
Although it is legal to wed in Massachusetts, same-gender couples still may find it more difficult to do so than their heterosexual counterparts. “There are many clergy who are not allowed to do them,” said one member of the Island clergy who wished to remain anonymous. The United Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and some branches of Judaism do not allow their clergy to perform gay marriages, though many leaders of these religions still do so.
“Following in the long-standing tradition of those who disagree with what their Church tells them, I choose to disagree and act according to my own faith and understanding. I absolutely celebrated when the state of Massachusetts allowed gay marriages. According to my Christian faith and fellowship, I could not deny anyone who came to me,” said this member of the Island clergy.
Choosing to go against the doctrine comes at a risk.
“I could be charged, defrocked. I could lose my collar, my retirement, but I could not say no to these people,” the clergy member said. “I celebrate that. I celebrate Massachusetts. I celebrate California.”