November 18, 2023
We can do the impossible. We already have.
By Mary L. Bonauto, Senior Director of Civil Rights and Legal Strategies
Twenty years ago today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its watershed decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, making Massachusetts the first U.S. state where same-sex couples could legally marry.
That breakthrough ruling spread joy across the state and the country and turbocharged the movement for the legal recognition of LGBTQ+ relationships, ultimately leading to the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring all 50 states to perform and recognize marriages of same-sex couples.
While it’s tempting to look back 20 years and think it was always inevitable, it’s important, especially at the challenging moment we are in, to remember that this is the anniversary of a freedom that once seemed impossible.
It took brave people challenging injustice. The seven Goodridge plaintiff couples not only challenged the law but told the stories of their relationships, their love of one another, and their desire to protect their families to the world. In the process, they, and many others with them, shared, listened, answered questions, and helped build greater understanding and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people.
It took all of us – community members, attorneys, organizers, and allies, to get us to that moment.
Often, what separates the possible and impossible is a plan.
Goodridge wasn’t the first marriage case, nor was it the end of the story.
We supported the Hawaii marriage litigation, and then our own plan began in Vermont. With co-counsel Beth Robinson and Susan Murray, we filed a marriage case, Baker v. State of Vermont, that resulted in the nation’s first ever civil union status.
We translated lessons from Vermont to reach a historic breakthrough and win the first legal marriages in the U.S. in Massachusetts.
This turning point triggered national blowback – from the President, the Congress, then Massachusetts Governor Romney, and legislative attempts to reverse the decision via constitutional amendment. Instead of getting beaten back, we built the foundation of a national movement. And we kept going.
15 years ago, Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled for us in a 2008 marriage case co-counseled with Ken Bartschi, Karen Dowd, and Maureen Murphy, and supported the whole way by Love Makes A Family. Ben Klein’s argument for the couples led to a breakthrough ruling on the impermissibility of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.
With longstanding state partners, GLAD worked a plan to win marriage across the New England states. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine passed the nation’s first marriage laws in 2009, and Maine won the first ballot measure in 2012. Rhode Island’s law made it a wrap in 2013. Passing laws and ballot measures showed what the right wing feared: that people would come to see that more marriages meant more security and happiness for more families.
We took the fight national in 2009, challenging the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on behalf of married couples in Massachusetts whose marriages were disregarded for social security and all federal benefits and responsibilities. We won the first rulings at the federal District and Court of Appeals levels with co-counsel from Jenner & Block, Foley Hoag, and Sullivan & Worcester. We won our second case in Connecticut, too, with couples from Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire. These challenges and the ultimate victory against DOMA which built upon them – U.S. v. Windsor, with counsel Roberta Kaplan in the lead – set the stage for the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.
Alongside movement partners and courageous plaintiffs, we supported cases nationwide seeking marriage equality. We were asked to join Michigan lawyers representing April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse. By 2015, we were Supreme Court bound to argue for the equal right to marry nationwide.
Getting to a win in Obergefell was a colossal effort of LGBTQ+ legal groups, friends of the court and their attorneys, and so many others. Twenty years after Goodridge, what seemed impossible is the law of the land.
Now, we must do the same thing again.
To be sure, we’ve made tremendous progress for our community.
And yet, we are facing some of the fiercest anti-LGBTQ+ attacks of our lifetimes.
Some people are newly confused and have questions about our community. Consider engaging in a way that invites more conversation and not less.
To be clear, there is also a separate, enormous, coordinated effort to reverse all of the gains we’ve made since the last century on gender and sexual equality.
Our entire community faces revitalized prejudice. The tip of the spear is directed at transgender people and, outrageously, at transgender young people.
In really hard times, when the challenges feel insurmountable, it’s important to understand some of our history. There were losses on the path to victories. And those victories were never inevitable.
What helped bring about transformative change was the strength we drew from one another and growing a movement. Plus, we never quit.
At one time during the marriage equality work, 40 states had either laws, constitutional amendments, or both, that said our relationships were unworthy of recognition. In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld sodomy laws that, in some cases, subjected people to 20-year prison terms for having sex. Yet, against all odds, we overturned those laws, and we will overturn these latest anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
We will always find a path forward.
What matters is all of us, staying engaged, staying positive, and standing up for our commitment to a future of full inclusion, equality, and freedom in which people and communities thrive.
As we joyfully celebrate 20 years of marriage equality, we know we have many miles yet to go to reach that future. But as we travel, let us remember how far we’ve come as fuel for the journey. What seems impossible can be done.
And together, we will do the impossible again.
Find inspiring remarks from the Goodridge plaintiffs, Dee Deidre Farmer, and more at the GLAD’s 2023 Spirit of Justice Award Dinner.
More media about the 20th anniversary of the Goodridge decision:
- Reflecting on 20 years of marriage equality in Massachusetts | WBUR
- 20 Years Ago Today Massachusetts Made History by Ruling in Favor of Marriage Equality | The Advocate
- We misremember marriage equality as ‘easy’ fight. But it paved the way for trans rights. | USA Today Opinion by Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen and Marc Solomon
- 20 years later, Hillary Goodridge reflects on Mass. gay marriage win | WBUR
- Reflecting on 20 Years of Making the Impossible Possible – and the Challenges Ahead | The Advocate Opinion by Mary L. Bonauto