Honoring Courage and Commitment: 20 Years of Marriage Equality

The following post is from Mary Bonauto’s recorded remarks for the May 17, 2024 event at the Arlington Street Church in Boston, MA, marking the 20th anniversary of the freedom to marry.

Mary Bonauto is GLAD’s Senior Director of Civil Rights and Legal Strategies and argued the case Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

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What people long thought was impossible, including in our own community, has now been the law of Massachusetts for 20 years.

It was a long journey to get from the vision of equal marriage to the joyous reality. This church and its Reverend Kim Crawford Harvie celebrated the marriage of David Wilson and Robert Compton right here, and you’d have thought they roof would blow off. 

David Wilson and Rob Compton at their wedding ceremony. They are dressed in black suits, holding hands and facing each other in front of their officiant.
David Wilson and Rob Compton
were married by Reverend Kim
Crawford Harvie – one of the first
same-sex marriages in the country.

Looking back, we honor Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, a white man and Black woman, who fought Virginia’s race-based bans in the 1960s to say that their marriage was valid. And the US Supreme Court agreed that the freedom to marry, and to marry without discrimination, is a vital personal right.

We honor the three brave plaintiffs couples in Hawaii, their lawyer Dan Foley, and the good people there who brought the conversation forward in the US with a stunning State Supreme Court ruling in 1993 that these couples should be allowed a chance to go forward with their case because there might in fact be a constitutional issue in categorically denying marriage to same sex couples.

We honor our dear friends in Vermont, lawyers Beth Robinson & Susan Murray, their firm Langrock Sperry and Wool, and the three wonderful couples there who, with GLAD, brought the first marriage case on the mainland in 1997. We won a ruling from that State’s Supreme Court that the constitution, and our common humanity, required that same-sex couples also have access to the protections, benefits, and responsibilities that marriage brings. Vermont then passed the nation’s first ever civil unions law, which provided the first comprehensive legal status to families of same-sex couples, and also provided a bridge to the future.

Here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we treasure our plaintiffs as people and as couples for their courage and commitment and for showing the world what love and justice looks like for same sex couples. I appreciate my GLAD colleagues and all of the amici and their attorneys who shared their expertise with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC)

The marriage story is a story of democracy in action.

The November 18, 2003 decision by Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, joined by Justices Greaney, Ireland, and Cowin, is one for the ages. It laid out the framework for all winning cases going forward in both state and federal courts and at the US Supreme Court. These Justices did not shrink from the constitutional imperatives of equality and liberty for all, even as to marriage. That ruling broke an historic barrier and changed forever what equality looks like for LGBTQ+ people.

Winning – and defending – marriage equality in Massachusetts was a team effort on a colossal scale. I know many of you who worked so hard are in the room today. It included Governor Deval Patrick who defended this decision and our community, stalwart legislators like Representatives Alice Wolf, Byron Rushing, Liz Malia and many more.

It includes those who changed their minds, like Representative Paul Kujawski. It includes Senator Marian Walsh who proclaimed during a constitutional convention proceeding that the Goodridge decision was correct. And that even though it made her uncomfortable, here her comfort level was not the measure of her constituents’ constitutional rights. We saw such incredible leadership up and down the legislature when it mattered.

In the face of those who would recreate marriage discrimination in our constitution, we proclaimed: “I stand with the Supreme Judicial Court.” And with MassEquality and so many other allies, the big “we” defeated those amendments over the course of three years. We showed the nation that marriage equality was here to stay in the US.

Creating the common good takes effort, and that’s more than a two-way street. It’s a busy intersection of listening, learning, and supporting “our” issues and “others” as well.

That win showed what we can do when we talk about our lives and learn about theirs, when we invite people in and talk to each other, even with noisy scare tactics and demonization around us.

The Massachusetts experienced helped propel other important milestones in the journey to nationwide marriage equality, including a judicial victory in Connecticut in 2008, one of two states to rule that year, as well as the first wins in state legislatures in 2009 in Vermont – over a Governor’s veto, Maine and New Hampshire.

And in 2012, states including Maine, Maryland, Washington, and Minnesota for the first time approved of marriage at the ballot.

Goodridge Plaintiffs Pictures Standing in a Group. Gloria Bailey-Davies • Linda Bailey-Davies • Edward BalmelliMaureen Brodoff • Gary Chalmers • Rob ComptonHillary Goodridge • Julie Goodridge • Michael HorganRichard Linnell • Gina Nortonsmith • Heidi NortonsmithEllen Wade • David Wilson
The plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health,
which won the freedom to marry in Massachusetts.

The marriage story is a story of democracy in action, of involving people and all branches of governments, of people from all walks of life and public and private institutions stepping up.

The road to nationwide marriage equality at the US Supreme Court in 2015 was paved through the States. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its people were absolutely essential.

Just as this victory was not inevitable, it is not invincible either. We know that there are those who would like to “revisit” marriage and other legal rights we’ve won over the years.

So, I ask you to remember, as we invest in our communities, so do they invest in us. Creating the common good takes effort, and that’s more than a two-way street. It’s a busy intersection of listening, learning, and supporting “our” issues and “others” as well. 

If we are about people, families, and communities thriving – and we are – and if we are about freedom, opportunity, equity and justice – and we are – then be there for your whole diverse community.

We are in a time where we can and must use the tools we learned through marriage and all of our justice struggles to support the truth, which is the inherent dignity, full equality, and common humanity of transgender people.

20 years on from May 17, 2004, we know how much protection comes with marriage, with being understood as a family, and with being valued as part of the fabric of the state, the community, and the nation.

So, happy anniversary. Enjoy this celebration. And let’s keeping working.

Celebrate 20 years of the freedom to marry in Massachusetts with a donation in honor of the brave plaintiffs who made it possible!