The Dignity and Equality of All Individuals

Celebrating 20 Years Since Goodridge v. DPH Brought the Freedom to Marry to Massachusetts, and Eventually the Nation 

An excerpt of this article appears in the November/December 2023 issue of Boston Spirit.  

Twenty years ago, on November 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court broke the historic barrier on LGBTQ+ people marrying in its landmark Goodridge v. Department of Public Health decision – making Massachusetts the first state to rule that the freedom to marry, or not, must be equally applicable to LGBTQ+ people. This ruling required opening the door to legal marriages in six months’ time.  

In the words of Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall’s majority opinion, “The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all Individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” This celebration of the commitment, intimacy, family, and mutuality in marriage continues to be quoted in wedding celebrations in Massachusetts and worldwide. 

GLAD filed Goodridge in April 2001 on behalf of 7 couples seeking something both simple and profound: constitutional respect for their personal commitment by ending the exclusion on joining in legal marriage and marriage’s protections, rights, and responsibilities.  

With tremendous gratitude and in recognition of their momentous impact on our community, state, and nation, we were thrilled to celebrate the Goodridge plaintiffs as the 2023 Spirit of Justice Award Honorees at GLAD’s Spirit of Justice Dinner. 

We honored Gloria Bailey-Davies, Linda Bailey-Davies, Edward Balmelli, Maureen Brodoff, Gary Chalmers, Rob Compton, Hillary Goodridge, Julie Goodridge, Michael Horgan, Richard Linnell, Gina Nortonsmith, Heidi Nortonsmith, Ellen Wade, and David Wilson.  

Spirit of Justice Award Dinner graphic - blue with justice statue on right. Thurs Nov 9. Join the can't miss event for supporters of LGBTQ+ equality

Each of them authentically gave of themselves and created connections and bridges of understanding with the wider community even while in a crucible of media and political attention and conflict. They advanced equal rights for all of us in Massachusetts and that beacon of hope spread far and wide. With other marriage plaintiffs, including in challenges in Hawaii and Vermont before Goodridge, and cases across the country after, the Goodridge plaintiffs’ full and complete victory paved the way for more. 

Several people, the Goodridge plaintiffs, standing together in front of GLAD banner
Goodridge plaintiffs at the 2013 Spirit of Justice Award Dinner with Honoree Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Mary Bonauto

The reality of people’s marriages in Massachusetts set the stage for dismantling the federal Defense of Marriage Act – first in GLAD’s 2009 challenge in federal court and 2012 unanimous victory at the First Circuit Court of Appeals, and then carried through by other plaintiffs at the Supreme Court in 2013. Community members and organizations, including GLAD, worked together in legislatures and courts across the U.S. In 2013, GLAD was asked to join the team representing plaintiffs in Michigan, in the case that would lead to the Supreme Court Obergefell ruling for marriage equality nationwide in 2015. 

Looking back now, it can be tempting to think this was all inevitable. But that is far from true. 

It took relentless hard work, commitment, and courage from the 14 plaintiffs, attorneys, amici and their attorneys, and so many others. The Goodridge plaintiffs withstood a trial court loss – expected but still disappointing – and redoubled their efforts to connect with people about why marriage was important to them. 

Victory was sweet. The Supreme Judicial Court’s (SJC) beautiful and momentous ruling on November 18, 2003, was a triumph. Even so, it wasn’t the end. The reactions were swift – both the eruption of joy and celebration and also the backlash. 

At the same time, the legislature, meeting in a constitutional convention, debated whether to constitutionally ban marriage for same-sex couples or to defend the court’s ruling.

“I stand with the SJC” stickers were everywhere, along with throngs of supporters and opponents inside and outside the State House.

Amidst all of this, couples acted on the simple desire to protect their, in some cases, decades-long love and commitment, and planned wedding celebrations.  

Finally, May 17, 2004, dawned with early morning talk shows and LGBTQ+ people and allies supporting couples seeking to marry in cities and towns across the Commonwealth.

“The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all Individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.”

Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall

The joy was palpable as Massachusetts, with the eyes of the nation on us, inaugurated the first legally-recognized marriages of same-sex couples in the country. 

And still, there was work to do. There were multiple more constitutional convention sessions and lawsuits about required procedures. Most importantly, the people of the Commonwealth were engaged with their elected officials, neighbors, and family members.

Finally, the legislature conclusively rejected the last proposed constitutional amendment in June 2007 with over ¾ of the vote of the House and Senate. The Commonwealth had taken a cue from the Goodridge plaintiffs in finding common ground and our common humanity. 

It was official – marriage equality was now here to stay in Massachusetts. 

The legal victory and the incredible defense mounted by everyday people in Massachusetts to protect it created momentum for equality, but national progress was still infuriatingly slow.

Politicians seeking to create fear and win power seized on our community’s fight for basic dignity and human rights – something we are seeing again today. State laws were changed to ban marriage and cut off any legal protections for a couple’s relationship. Hostile politicians drove a wave of constitutional amendments across the country.

It wasn’t until 2008 that GLAD secured the next lasting court victory, at the Connecticut Supreme Court in Kerrigan and Mock v. Dept. of Public Health. We will be celebrating 15 years of marriage in Connecticut on November 12, just before the 20th anniversary of Goodridge

After Connecticut, we began to see more state court, legislative, and ballot victories for the freedom to marry. 

Crucial legislative victories for marriage equality in the New England States of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire proved that we could make change in the democratic process and not only the courts. We had to go back to the ballot in Maine in 2012, which then became the first state to win marriage by popular vote of the people. And in early 2013, our campaign in New England concluded with Rhode Island’s marriage enactment.  

Slowly but increasingly perceptibly, more and more of the public were coming to engage the possibility of, and then embracing, the dignity and equality of LGBTQ+ individuals and our relationships.  

The journey from a state constitutional law case in Massachusetts to the national marriage victory in Obergefell v. Hodges at the Supreme Court in 2015 results from the changed minds, hard work, courage, resilience, and persistence of so many across society and law. As queer historian George Chauncey has put it though, there would be no Obergefell without Goodridge, and we happily celebrate the 14 trailblazing plaintiffs who led the way.   

Cementing Dignity and Equality in Federal Law  

President BIden signing the RMA surrounded by legislators, outside of the White House
Signing ceremony at the White House

In June 2022, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas called for reconsideration of Obergefell – and other key cases protecting individual freedoms – in his concurrence in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health ruling that overturned 50 years of precedent on abortion rights. It was neither the first nor the last time we’ve seen direct threats to marriage equality, but it spurred action years in the making to require state and federal recognition of people’s marriages and forbid discrimination based on the sex, race, or ethnicity of the spouses. With bipartisan support, President Biden signed the federal “Respect for Marriage Act” in December 2022 to provide LGBTQ+ families and others across the country with the assurance that their marriages will continue to be respected by our state and federal governments. 

“It takes the efforts of many to bend the arc of history toward justice… Even now there are so many places where people in our community are under attack. The work will continue, but look how far we’ve come.”

Goodridge plaintiff Heidi Nortonsmith

We are alert to efforts to chip away at civil marriage equality and the equal status of LGBTQ+ people more broadly. This includes creating speech and religious objections to the basic rules of equal treatment, as in this summer’s narrow but alarming Supreme Court 303 Creative ruling and others. We also see it in the widespread state legislative threats to LGBTQ+ people’s making any claims to basic human or legal respect, whether in schools, healthcare settings, the public marketplace, and other areas of daily life. Our community is working overtime to defend and protect one another and affirm what we know is true and right in these extremely challenging times.    

While this fight is hard, we know we can fight through losses and gaps in public understanding, as we have with marriage, with laws criminalizing intimacy, with our community’s response to the HIV epidemic, and with two decades of advances in the rights of transgender people, who are now facing devastating backlash. It is never easy or immediate, but when we work together from a place of love and commitment for the long term, we win.   

“It takes the efforts of many to bend the arc of history toward justice,”Goodridge plaintiff Heidi Nortonsmith said at the White House signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act. “Even now there are so many places where people in our community are under attack. The work will continue, but look how far we’ve come. The law that President Biden signs today will make people safer, more secure, and less alone. From our family to all of you, thank you for fighting for our equal humanity and dignity. For our right to love and be loved. And for our marriage.”  

Unfinished Business: Ensuring Protections for Our Families

Selfie of MA parent with child smiling
MA parent Kam and her son

Today Massachusetts is proud of its leadership on marriage equality, and rightly so. But twenty years after the landmark Goodridge ruling, the state has unfinished business to ensure LGBTQ+ families – including our children – are fully protected by connecting them legally with their parents. Massachusetts’ statutes on establishing parentage – the legal relationship between a child and their parents – remain decades out of date. As a result, children born to LGBTQ+ families and other children born with the aid of assisted reproduction are left vulnerable, without the security of the law recognizing their relationship to their parents. We need the legislature to act this year to pass the Massachusetts Parentage Act to provide a statutory roadmap that equally protects all families. 

This story was originally published in the Fall 2023 GLAD Briefs Newsletter. Read more.