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Looking Back on Ten Years of Marriage Equality in Massachusetts

By Catherine Reid

Rainbow flag (via Wikimedia Commons)

In November of 2003, when a Massachusetts court declared the ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional in that state, Catherine Reid was left with an unexpected choice: to get married, or not. As the ten year anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts approaches, Reid, in this excerpt from Falling Into Place, takes us back to those heady early days of victory and apprehension after the first marriage licenses could be issued to same-sex partners.

We have sixty days to take action before the marriage certificate expires, less than thirty before our blood tests will no longer be valid. We still have time to change our minds, and we consider backing out often, though now that we’ve agreed to do this with two other couples, we’ll be considered traitors if we develop a case of cold feet. Besides, my short list of excuses—how to deal with the bizarre notion of “wife,” or the difficulty in telling my ninety-nine-year-old grandmother, or the support this lends to the institution of the privileged—can’t compare with the number of reasons to go through with this, which became longer with an unexpected Sunday-night phone call.

“As a father of two children,” the automated voice begins, “I am horrified at the changes about to take place in our country.” Despite my own horror, I don’t hang up; I want a phone number, I want to register protest. “We urge you to support Article 8,” the voice insists, describing a bill that will empower the legislature to repeal “activist judges” and prevent married homosexuals from tainting our nation’s moral character.

Yet the specific judge that his group and others like it are targeting—Chief Justice Margaret Marshall—is my new hero, her moral fiber shaped by years in South Africa, where she actively fought her country’s laws of apartheid and then had to emigrate to the States when it became too dangerous to stay in her homeland. One of the cases our chief justice likes to mention, when someone brings up the history of Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court (the oldest continuously running court in the western hemisphere) is that of Quock Walker, a slave who in 1781 ran away to work for a neighbor and was subsequently beaten when he was recaptured. He sued for assault, basing his case on the constitutional provision that “all men are created equal,” and the SJC ruled in his favor, arguing that he was, in fact, a man, and thus could not be enslaved.

I want to be associated with a woman like that. And with another straight person, from whom I never thought I’d hear support, someone also moved to take a radical step in response to this civil rights issue. It was more surprising coming from him, however, than from a white-haired judge with lots of mileage in South Africa; he’s a toe-the-party-line Republican, the state legislator who represents our district and with whom I disagree on too many issues. Yet when he stood at the podium during the constitutional convention’s long session on the “one man, one woman” marriage amendment, he spoke as though he were channeling God.

The previous hours of debate had been grueling—it was a civil rights issue, it wasn’t; queers were good citizens, they weren’t—with most of the speakers relying on well-crafted speeches and rhetorical flourishes that put considerable distance on the subject. But when Representative Sean Kelly stood up, he sounded purified, stripped clean. “What this is really about,” he said slowly, as though every syllable took effort, “is love. That’s what we’re really discussing here—love.” He named a colleague, a Democrat from Boston, someone he sat near during legislative sessions, and the tenderness in his voice made it clear that he loved her. And that he couldn’t imagine denying her or her partner such basic rights as hospital access or the chance to stay in the home they owned together, should one of them die. When he said “love” it carried the weight of sacrament. It lofted above the suits and ties and mahogany and leather, above the microphones and whisperings and power brokering around him; it occupied a large space in the great chamber and then settled in our small room, and we cried in front of the television and knew he had gotten it just right.

I call to make a restaurant reservation, telling the young woman who answers the phone that we are a party of six, three lesbian couples who will have just married, and we would like one of the tables overlooking the river. “Sure,” she says. “That’s cool.”

Her casual approach seems appropriate. I don’t want special treatment. I don’t want to give this day a glamorous frame; to do so suggests that I’ve longed for the moment when I, too, could marry, a feeling like that of the kid who never gets picked to be on a team, but sits on a bench until a coach or parent notices. And, of course, I have.

“No toasters, just toasts,” we repeat, and of course we are delighted by each gift that comes—plants, bouquets, champagne, cards, and an engagement cake covered with pansies and fresh fennel.

And when there is almost no time left to back out, my spouse-to-be remembers a story she once read, about an incident that took place in 1965, immediately after the Voting Rights Act was passed. The African American woman telling the story recalled a white man approaching her father to shake his hand and offer congratulations. “This is a great victory for your people,” the white man said, to which her father replied, “Thank you, sir, but the victory is yours. It takes great courage to make amends.”

That’s when I begin drafting the words I want to say before the justice of the peace pronounces us married, promises I will be glad to make in the presence of others, along the lines of loving and cherishing for as long as I am able. And then the sentence that makes the process more bearable. And may the step we take today help make the world a more equitable place for all people.


Catherine_Reid-by_Erin_BrethauerCatherine Reid is the author of Falling Into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home, available now from Beacon Press. She directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Warren Wilson College, where she teaches courses in creative nonfiction and environmental writing. She is the author of Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in Our Midst and of essays that have appeared in such journals as the Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, Bellevue Literary Review, and Massachusetts Review. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina.