Ten years ago this week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Goodridge versus Department of Public Health, effectively setting off a marriage revolution that today appears to have reached some sort of tipping point even as the effort continues state by state. In light of that, it’s worth recalling that at the time, both the case and the decision were viewed as living somewhere between reckless and brave.
We have since seen several groups of plaintiff couples in subsequent cases, including the pair represented in the much-publicized U.S. Supreme Court case that reinstated marriage equality in California. In the companion case the court selected that challenged the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA, which denied legally married same-sex couples access to federal protections and benefits, the plaintiff was an 83-year-old New York city widow. Edie Windsor became a rock star, complete with a flattering New Yorker profile and invitations to speak all over the country.
But that very first group of Goodridge plaintiffs were pioneers and rightfully nervous about what the public profile would mean for them and their families. Mary Bonauto, the lead attorney in Goodridge and seen by many as the architect of the marriage legal movement, including the successful approach to topple DOMA, encountered significant opposition even within progressive circles. It was too soon. It was too radical. It would set marriage back for decades.
Of course there was backlash. The term “activist judges” became a right-wing mantra in the aftermath of the five-to-four Goodridge decision written by then Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, a longtime West Tisbury homeowner with her late husband, Anthony Lewis. In Massachusetts, there was a two-year legislative fight to keep marriage off the ballot. And in 2004, Karl Rove famously ensured that constitutional ballot measures banning marriage equality would appear in 11 states to drive the conservative vote for George W. Bush.
One step forward, two steps back was how it felt. The California Supreme Court granted marriage equality, but it was stripped away in the Proposition 8 fight in 2008. The Maine legislature gave its approval and, again, a November referendum took it back in 2009. Iowa’s high court unanimously moved forward in 2009, but the right wing targeted three justices up for retention, dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars in what had traditionally been a sleepy electoral process. All three were tossed out.
When marriage came to Massachusetts on May 17, 2004, safety was a serious concern. It began with an exuberant Mayor Tom Menino meeting the Boston plaintiff couples at city hall to collect their marriage licenses. The group then had to cross city hall plaza to the probate court to receive exemptions to the normal three-day waiting period. It was a highly executed police drill, complete with sharpshooters on the rooftops, plain clothes police mixed in the crowd and scores of uniforms surrounding the plaintiffs and lawyers. The crush of people, cameras, placards and shouting was exhilarating and somewhat terrifying all at once. In short, it was history.
Today, 16 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry with several others poised to join. And Margaret Marshall’s decision has become a favorite reading at both gay and straight weddings. It is one of the most eloquent tributes to marriage and why government cannot deny that fundamental right to gay and lesbian couples. The chief justice wrote in part:
“Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity and family . . . Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”
Being first isn’t easy, but it is a badge of honor. That marriage equality began here, and that the powerful and wise decision that would guide other justices and legislators across the country was penned by Margaret Marshall is a proud measure of our history as revolutionaries and civil libertarians. It had to start somewhere, and like so many others, I am grateful it started here.
Mary Breslauer of Chilmark led the communications effort behind the Goodridge case.