Celebrating Marriage Equality

Holger Schmidt and Alexander Nicolai from Germany hold hands while being married during their wedding to coincide with the Eu
Holger Schmidt and Alexander Nicolai from Germany hold hands while being married during their wedding to coincide with the Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen, Denmark, Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Co-authored with Mary Bonauto, Congressman Barney Frank, and Marc Solomon.

On May 17, 2004, Massachusetts once again altered the course of American history. That day, 14 brave individuals -- plaintiffs in the Massachusetts freedom to marry lawsuit -- along with many others from throughout the Commonwealth, simply married the person he or she loved, for the first time ever legally in America. In so doing, they were taking another step on the great American journey of coming before their government as equals.

Both those in favor and those opposed knew how significant this was. Once these couples were legally married, it would change the terms of the debate forever. As Americans would bear witness to their love and commitment, fears that some held would begin to crumble and the values of the Golden Rule -- treating others the way you want to be treated -- would begin to take hold. And so, in seven simple yet profound ceremonies from Cape Cod to Western Massachusetts, in the vows of hundreds of other couples, and in the experiences of tens of thousands of onlookers there to bear witness and celebrate, that's exactly what happened. With the avalanche of international press attention, married same-sex couples were under the glare of klieg lights. Yet all that was exposed was that loving same-sex couples wanted to declare their lifelong commitment to one another and to support their families - just like straight couples do.

Opponents of marriage equality most certainly didn't give up the fight on May 17. Elected officials of both parties called for an amendment to the Massachusetts constitution to undo the decision, and President George W. Bush called for a federal constitutional amendment to do the same. Fighting those efforts was very hard work, but pro-equality forces now had a most powerful weapon our side -- thousands of married same-sex couples living in every part of the state, taking their kids to soccer games, looking after one another, volunteering in their communities -- as well as parents, children, friends and neighbors who could vouch for their marriages.

Organizers on the ground made sure that lawmakers from throughout Massachusetts got to know these same-sex couples. Couples invited lawmakers into their homes, introduced them to their children and parents, and told them about how marriage had made such a crucial difference in their lives. In large part as a result of the bravery of these couples being out and open and sharing their stories about their marriage, two Massachusetts state constitutional amendments went down to defeat. And similar mobilizing of same-sex couples around the country -- those who aspired one day to marry -- helped ensure the federal amendment did the same.

Fast forward to today. Same-sex couples living in 17 states and the District of Columbia -- covering nearly 40 percent of the nation -- can get a marriage license without incident. Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act that required the federal government to treat married same-sex couples as legal strangers. And now, it seems like nearly every day that a federal judge is striking down a state marriage ban. Younger generations wonder what all the hubbub was all about. Gay couples marrying is controversial among fewer and fewer citizens, as a supermajority of 59 percent of Americans are in support, up from 37 percent at the time of the Massachusetts marriage ruling.

None of this journey was inevitable. There was no second state with the freedom to marry until California and Connecticut in 2008 -- and if the plaintiffs in that landmark Massachusetts lawsuit had received a different decision or if we had failed to protect the victory from being overturned via constitutional amendment, there's no question other courts and legislatures would have taken note, just as they noted how Massachusetts held on to and embraced the decision and beat back attacks. While the fight began a long time before the Massachusetts decision, Massachusetts made it all real. And the powerful stories of families seeking to pursue their own version of the American dream began transforming America.

There are many heroes in this nationwide civil rights struggle. Without question, the pioneering seven Massachusetts plaintiff couples who put themselves forward in the public spotlight to fight for everyone's freedom to marry are among them. Their boldness, and the boldness of so many others who married in Massachusetts and shared their lives publicly, contributed a great deal to this movement's successes so that today -- 10 years later -- America is so much closer to securing the freedom to marry for all.

Mary Bonauto is civil rights project director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. Barney Frank is a former congressman from Massachusetts. Deval Patrick is governor of Massachusetts. Marc Solomon, formerly executive director of MassEquality, is national campaign director of Freedom to Marry.