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Susan Shepard (right) and Marcia Hams (center) celebrated today after becoming the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license in Massachusetts.
Susan Shepard (right) and Marcia Hams (center) celebrated today after becoming the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license in Massachusetts. (Globe Staff Photo / Dina Rudick)

Free to marry

Historic date arrives for same-sex couples in Massachusetts

Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to permit gays and lesbians to wed just after midnight today, when Cambridge City Hall welcomed more than 250 same-sex couples who hugged, cried, cheered, and applied for the marriage licenses many thought they would never see in their lifetimes.

Outside City Hall, 10,000 supporters and onlookers gathered to witness the historic event, spilling off the grounds of City Hall, and clogging Massachusetts Avenue. Police in riot gear lined the street, but the anticipated clash between protesters and supporters of gay marriage never came: All but a handful of opponents stayed away.

"This is like winning the World Series and the Stanley Cup on the same day," said Susan Shepherd, 52, who, with her partner, Marcia Hams, 56, was the first to apply for a marriage license in Massachusetts. "I'm trying not to lose it. We just really feel awesome. It's awesome.

"There's a kid somewhere that's watching this," she continued, fighting back tears. "It's going to change his whole life."

What began in Cambridge last night will continue in city and town halls across the state today, as a November ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court granting gays and lesbians the right to marry goes into effect. The licenses are to be granted after years of legal wrangling, political maneuvering, and fractious public debate, which will probably continue even after the first gay and lesbian marriages. The giddy celebrations of couples in Cambridge last night, and those expected in other cities and towns across the state today, will soon give way to disputes over the reach and validity of same-sex marriages elsewhere in the country.

Governor Mitt Romney, who opposes gay marriage because he says it undermines the traditional family, has said that, under a 1913 law, only residents of Massachusetts are eligible to marry same-sex partners. If couples come from other states seeking to marry, their unions will be void because same-sex marriage is illegal in the rest of the country, the governor has said. Gay-rights advocates disagree with Romney's application of the law, and are likely to test it in the courts in coming months.

Attorneys general in Rhode Island and Connecticut are set to issue opinions today on whether gay marriages performed in Massachusetts will be valid in their states. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has informed the Romney administration that he believes Massachusetts gay marriages will be honored in his state, but Governor George E. Pataki disagrees with that assessment.

A spokeswoman for Romney said today would be a "normal work day" for the governor. He was to spend it in the State House, then attend an education forum in Framingham this evening, Romney spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman said in an e-mail. The governor had tried to stay the SJC decision until after a proposed ballot question banning gay marriage is decided in 2006. But Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly refused to take Romney's case to the court, saying the governor had no grounds to seek the stay.

"Now that the court's decision is going into effect, the governor expects everyone to respect the law and respect one another," Feddeman said.

Despite Romney's opposition, Massachusetts joins three Canadian provinces, Belgium, and the Netherlands as the only places where gays can marry legally. Several US cities allowed gays to marry earlier this year, but the legality of the marriages is in question.

The first same-sex couples applied for licenses at Cambridge City Hall at a minute past midnight, following a celebration with wedding cake and sparkling cider presided over by Mayor Michael A. Sullivan. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, couples had to wait until city and town clerks' offices opened this morning to apply for licenses to marry. Some couples plan to be married by day's end, including all seven plaintiff couples in the case that led to the historic SJC ruling.

"It is an historic day," said Mary Bonauto, the legal director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which brought the suit that led to the SJC decision. "This is extraordinarily significant on a personal level, and for the history of our country. Our country has always promised we are all equal under the law, and tomorrow, more citizens will be equal under the law than has been the case to date."

In cities and towns in the state, supporters of gay marriage have planned today with an eye toward history and maximum media impact. With the help of city officials, the plaintiff couples will be brought to the front of some lines to get their paperwork. The three plaintiff couples who live in Boston, including Julie and Hillary Goodridge, for whom the case was named, were to be first in line at Boston City Hall this morning, greeted by Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

Members of Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians will be visiting town halls, giving flowers to waiting couples. And some city and town halls will host celebrations later today, including an ice cream social hour in Belmont and a "Community Celebration of Equality and Family," with speakers and entertainers, hosted by Mayor David B. Cohen in Newton, home to plaintiff couple Ellen Wade and Maureen Brodoff. In other municipalities, today will be a day like any other, said Linda Hutchenrider, president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association.

Meanwhile, Cambridge, with its reputation for liberal politics and passionate advocacy, reveled in its first-in-the-nation status, a large red-and-black clock ticking down the minutes to midnight in the council chamber where celebrations were held. The first couple to get the application, Shepherd and Hams, had arrived at City Hall at midnight on Saturday. Both are longtime Cambridge residents who together raised a son, now 24. They said they had been waiting 27 years for this opportunity.

"This is amazing," Shepherd said. "You never thought this would ever happen, not in any amount of lifetimes you could think about."

Shepherd and Hams spent Saturday night in sleeping bags and under tarps near the front entrance to City Hall. The couple plan to marry Sunday, at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, a Unitarian Universalist church, with a reception in September.

"We just didn't imagine we could ever have this," Hams said.

The couple had been carefully selected by gay advocacy groups, including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and GLAD. Those advocates are eager to see media attention trained on the right kind of couples in the first hours of gay marriage: those with deep local roots, so their residency -- the focus of enormous controversy over gay marriage in the past few weeks -- is not in question. Though they are likely to challenge the residency rule in the near future, gay-rights advocates are trying to avoid disputes over residency and political sparring today, fearing it will take the focus off what they say should be a day of celebration.

Throughout the evening, motorists honked their horns in support, and local residents dropped off bouquets of flowers and coffee, muffins, and cupcakes to the couples who put in long hours in the drizzle outside City Hall.

"We're well-taken care of," said Sasha Hartman, a 29-year-old South End resident who joined her partner of seven years, Alex Fennell, on the steps of City Hall. "Every time someone honks, I get goosebumps."

"We would have done it 26 years ago, on the night we met," said Donal O'Leary, who will marry his partner, Roby Fader, in July. "Good things happen if you wait long enough."

Massachusetts law requires a three-day waiting period between an application for a marriage license and the issuance of the license, but the waiting period can be waived by a judge. Some couples got waivers before they applied for marriage licenses last night.

Cambridge Mayor Sullivan said that even if couples have waivers, no marriage licenses will be issued until after City Hall opens for business today at 8:30 a.m. Couples hoping for waivers in Middlesex County today will find extra courtrooms open at the district court to accommodate them.

In Somerville, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone planned to formally welcome couples at 8 a.m., to serve refreshments, and to have extra people on hand to direct them to the appropriate offices. He said he decided to allow out-of-state couples to marry in Somerville.

"We're not going to create a new standard for same-sex couples that doesn't apply to out-of-state couples," Curtatone said. "It's about fairness and justice at this point."

Clerks in Worcester and Provincetown have vowed to defy the governor's directive, even though Romney has threatened to take action against them for doing so.

Scores of GLAD volunteers will be on hand in larger cities to help applicants with their forms. At GLAD's headquarters in Boston, 40 volunteers will man phones in a "hotline room," between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. all week. They will track the progress of licenses in the state's 351 cities and towns, and troubleshoot when couples run into difficulties. Volunteers will write up successes and problems in columns headed "good news" and "bad news."

Some who have led the fight against gay marriage said they would not lead protests today, preferring to save their energy for upcoming fights to replace legislators who voted down a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and to fight for passage of that amendment in 2006. But other opponents have planned demonstrations.

One group, the Article 8 Alliance, planned a protest on Boston City Hall Plaza at noon today. The group seeks the ouster of the Massachusetts SJC judges who handed down the Goodridge decision last year. If they don't protest today, said Brian Camenker, who heads the group, they will have no credibility.

"If we just sit around with our hands in our pockets and don't say something, I don't think the world will think we think this is important," he said. "For people not to make a statement would almost be a crime." 

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