Couples Reflect on the 20th Anniversary of Same-Sex Marriage

To Gina Nortonsmith, the most memorable moment from her wedding day was not walking down the aisle, but rather, a conversation she shared with her two sons. “You came out as Nortonsmith. We had to earn it,” she recalls telling her children on May 17, 2004. The roots of her family had been in the making for nearly 15 years, but Heidi Norton and Gina Smith, as they were then-known, were unable to marry until the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s (SJC) 4-3 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage was officially in motion. The women were two of the fourteen plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.

The decision, announced on Nov. 18, 2003, was monumental. “We were all on entirely new ground here. No state in the nation had done this before,” Mary Bonauto, the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) attorney behind Goodridge tells TIME. It took more than 900 days after the case’s initial filing for plaintiffs to learn that they won, and the SJC gave the legislature half a year until the decision went into effect.

Problems were quick to manifest. Within hours of the decision, then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called for changes to the state’s constitution to bar the ruling from going through. Former President George W. Bush also spoke out against same-sex marriage, saying he was “troubled” by the landmark decision, and calling for a constitutional amendment in his 2004 State of the Union address. Multiple lawsuits were filed between November 2003 and May 2004, with the last case against Goodridge settled just three days prior to May 17, the day the SJC had declared same-sex couples could apply for a marriage license. “The issue was viewed as toxic to Democrats and an opportunity to attack by Republicans,” said Marc Solomon, one of the key political strategists of the marriage equality movement. “It was incredibly intense.”

Many recollect different memories of that day. Some speak of the sharpshooters on roofs across Boston, and increased police presence meant to protect them. Most mention being unaware of what was happening around them outside of the great fanfare and support they felt. “As soon as I sat down in the pew, I just couldn't repress the tears,” says Bonauto. “I think it was tears of relief and joy.”

While many young people have grown up in a country that on its face, seems much more LGBTQ+-friendly, acceptance is still fairly recent. It took the U.S. 14 years to catch up to the Netherlands—the first country to legalize same-sex marriage—through the 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges.

Seventy-one percent of Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal, according to the latest Gallup figures released in 2023. That rate of approval is the highest Gallup has recorded since 1996, when just over 1 in 4 Americans approved. Part of that pivot might be due to the fact that an increasing number of Americans aged 18 to 29 identify as LGBTQ+.

Still, many advocates express fear that the constitutional right to same-sex marriage could be in danger, with Justice Clarence Thomas referencing the possibility of overturning Obergefell in his Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization concurring opinion.

“When I think about the possibility of Obergefell being overturned, I want to say it would be outrageous because the ruling is based on mainstream law, under equal protection and due process,” says Bonauto, who also argued Obergefell. “Anything is possible. I’m going to bet on it not being reversed. The minute I say that, I have to say not for a second do I think we should be complacent.”

Below are the love and wedding stories of couples who legally married in Massachusetts, thanks to Goodridge, and the challenges that came before then.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Mike Horgan and Ed Balmelli, both 64, were plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Dept. Public Health. They met at a Christmas party in Lowell, Mass. in 1994 and got married on May 17, 2004.

Mike: We knew that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts was about to announce their decision. So, at that time, you would go to your computer and bring up a browser and keep hitting refresh every morning to see if the Supreme Judicial Court had decided. And when they did, we didn't really know what to do at that point. We got dressed, put our suits on, and went downtown to GLAD’s office. On the street, we were jumping up and down, doing high fives. We just couldn't believe that the case was decided.

Governor Romney was not happy about this. He was trying to do everything he could, from his viewpoint, to stop this. We also had a civil union in Vermont in 2000. One of the things that the administration was thinking of doing was making people who had civil unions dissolve them, so that would have taken some time. We didn't know if we were going to be able to get married on May 17, 2004. Actually, we only had about two or three weeks to plan the wedding by the time we found out that they had dropped that notion of making people with civil unions dissolve them.

Ed: On the day of our wedding, we were [one of] three [plaintiff] couples in Boston that got married that first day. We had all these news cameras and media talking to us and whatnot. And I think they thought that maybe one of us was going to show up in a dress or something because when they saw it all happening, they saw our parents there, our siblings, and the minister— and they were kind of, almost bored. It's like, ‘why is this news? It's just a wedding.’ And so that was kind of like an Aha! moment. It was kind of special.

Now, it's so nice that people have grown up with [it] being legal all this time. It used to be anytime there's anything in the news about same-sex marriage, they would call one of us seven couples.

Linda and Gloria Bailey-Davies were plaintiffs in Goodridge. The couple, ages 78 and 83, have been together for 53 years. The couple had a legal wedding on May 17, 2004, followed by a church wedding two months later in July.  

Gloria: We got involved [with Goodridge] because Linda had been facing some health challenges and we became aware that, legally, we had no relationship at all even though we had been together for 33 years. And no one could really guarantee us that I could be there with her because I wasn't her legal next of kin, so that frightened us enough.

Linda: We also wanted to get married. We never in a million years thought we would be able to be married when we first got together. [That] wasn't even a question. The question was, are we lesbians? That was hard enough to come to grips with back in those days, coming out to ourselves and each other. But then the concept of maybe being able to be married was just over the top for us. But we decided, if there was any chance, we'd like to help with the cause.

Gloria would not say that she would marry me all that whole two-and-a-half years [that the case was in limbo]. I kept asking.  She said, ‘Don't ask me until it's legal.’ So on the day we were riding up to Boston to hear the decision, it came out over the radio that we had won the case and Gloria just burst into tears, and she's not a big crier. And I had to say, ‘you have to stop crying. I want to ask you, will you marry me?’

Gloria: Finally, it was a legal question that I could answer, and I happily said, ‘Of course.’

Marriage was a very different process. I mean, people say, ‘Well, you've been together all those years, did it change?’ It changed for me, unbelievably, because I felt like we were finally able to hold our heads up high and be in the world and be just like everybody else.

Heidi and Gina Nortonsmith, both 59, were plaintiffs in Goodridge. They met in 1990 at a National Lesbian and Gay Law Association gathering in Atlanta. They had a commitment ceremony in 1993, before getting legally married on May 17, 2004. The couple says that the main reason they joined the lawsuit was to protect their family.

Gina: We already had our oldest son, and had been working with our lawyer to draw whatever legal papers we could to show that we were family, and that if something happened to Heidi, as the birth mom, I was the other parent. There was only so much that our lawyer could do for us at that point because we couldn't get legally married. Heidi was pregnant with our second son when our lawyer said, ‘Hey, I know about this thing that GLAD is planning to do, would you be interested in talking to them?’

Heidi: Reflecting on it, 20 years later, I think, ‘Oh, my God, we were so young, we had so much energy.’ Imagine parenting small children, being career people, and then there were weeks when every single evening we were meeting with reporters, talking to reporters on the phone, sometimes multiple interactions like that. But more importantly than that, there was just so much joy around having a portion of our lives that was dedicated, literally every single day, to talking about our love, our relationship, our wonderful families.

Gina: We had been told that the Supreme Judicial Court usually takes 90 days to issue an opinion. And so after the hearing, in our case, at the Supreme Judicial Court, the 90 days were set to expire in July. But we didn't get a decision until November. So between July and November [2003], there was lots of tension. So many people that we interacted with would also express their tension and nervousness. And so it was like we became a container for all of that and that was a lot. That was really heavy to hold and carry.

We [ended up] hear[ing] the decision announced on the radio while we were on the highway on our way to Boston. So when we figured out that we had won, Heidi and I started banging on the ceiling of the car, and Avery and Quinn [our children] started banging on the ceiling too. We were just out of our minds with excitement.

Robert Compton, 75, and David Wilson, 80, were a plaintiff couple in the Goodridge case. Compton first moved to Massachusetts, one of the few states that then-had workplace protections for LGBTQ+ people, after being fired in the mid ‘90s for being gay. The two men met through the organization Gay Fathers of Greater Boston, a support group for gay dads. They married on May 17, 2004.

Robert: I came to Massachusetts because it had individual protections for the gay community, but after David and I entered into a relationship and eventually moved in together, I had an [unexpected health] episode in the middle of the night and David rushed me to the hospital. I was in excruciating pain just doubled over. I didn't know what was happening. I got to the hospital, they rushed me to the back right away, [and] were doing tests on me and asking me all these questions about insurance and all this other stuff. And I didn't realize at first that David wasn't with me until I started trying to answer the questions. I realized they wouldn't let him come back because we weren't legally related. Obviously, I can't say he's my brother because we're an interracial couple, and so, I became acutely aware of the fact that we don't have protections as families, just as individuals.

Back when we started the marriage lawsuit in 2001, actually, only about 35% of even the LGBTQ community supported [same-sex] marriage. We had just won civil unions in Vermont and even the gay community was pushing back and they were telling us, ‘we're winning all of these great advancements—we have individual rights, we have workplace protections, we're getting adoption rights, we're getting domestic partner benefits, we get health care.’ And they're telling us, ‘you're going to cause a backlash, and we're going to lose all of these things.’ But they didn't realize that there were over 1000 protections in the federal law that civil unions, which were state-based, wouldn't afford you.

So today, it's a very different environment. We sometimes worry [about LGBTQ+ protections] because states are starting to push back on abortion rights and we're concerned about marriage rights.

David: I remember that Rob and I started off wanting to have this moment of fighting for our rights, very personal to us. So we thought, well, when we get to the end [of the lawsuit], we'll have a nice, quiet wedding, just our family and friends. Obviously we had to share it with the world—500 plus people showed up. And we were together, but we were really part of this huge celebration and we actually couldn't even get out of the church because there were so many people on the steps and going across the street. So it was an exciting day, but it was a bit overwhelming just because there were so many people. But it's a memory that we'll always have and we have a [news clip] video, which is a great memory for us because it is intimate in that it focuses on us, it focuses on our pastor, Kim Crawford Harvey, focuses on the Gay Men's Chorus that was singing, so there are some very intimate moments but around us with hundreds of people cheering for us.

Bette Jo Green and Jo Ann Whitehead, both 82, were plaintiffs in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Gill v. OPM, which was decided by the Supreme Court in 2013. The case challenged section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a legal union between a man and woman. The Act, under its previous language, only allowed heterosexual couples to access federal benefits, such as income taxation, social security benefits, etc. The couple was married on June 7, 2004.

Bette Jo: In November of 2003, [when the Goodridge decision came out] we couldn't believe it. We decided that we weren't going to make any plans until the six months was up. [But] there was smiling in our neighborhood, down the street all around. We were so happy. It was very hard to find somebody to marry us—they were so busy! It's not like people didn't want to, but all of a sudden there was a marriage boom in Massachusetts. We were a committed couple beforehand, it wasn't the committed part [that changed after our marriage]. But it's the acceptance part by the world.

We decided to elope, and then that kind of went by the wayside because people but we knew said, ‘What?! Can I come?’ and so we got married in our backyard garden and ended up with a few friends and had a wonderful time. Then, we were contacted by GLAD. Over the years, [GLAD] sent out questionnaires to all the couples that got married in 2004 and asked how that changed our lives. For a long time, it didn't change our lives because it didn’t change our health insurance. And when it got close to retirement, I realized that it didn’t change our lives because normally, when married couples retire, they have choices in terms of social security, whether one person keeps their social security as a couple, or if one person abstains from getting their social security after retirement, until age 70, it accrues over that time. And they wrote back and said, ‘Well, how would you like to be the Social Security part of the DOMA lawsuit?’ And we talked about it for a while, and they said, ‘Yeah, why don't we just check this out?’

Pam Waterman, 58, and Michelle Colemon, 63, met when they were both working at New York University’s School of Medicine. After six years together, the couple married on October 10, 2004.

Pam: We don't even remember who asked who to get married. I think once [marriage] was a thing, we were like, ‘okay, so when?’ There was no formal proposal. There was nothing like that. It was just already in our heads.

Our wedding day was phenomenal. It was solemn. We wanted it to feel sacred, and we wanted it to be a celebration. When we were walking down the aisle, we had a friend with a shekere (a West African percussion instrument), and we gave everyone musical instruments, percussion instruments. Just before we jumped the broom, we talked about marriage equality. We talked about the fact that even though the judiciary had decided on marriage equality, the people had the opportunity in the fall to vote against it and to say they didn't want it. And so we felt that there was a way that our wedding might have become unraveled, which made us feel more tied to the ceremony of jumping the broom, just like our ancestors might have had to jump the broom to have their weddings valid. That gave us extra meaning.

Michelle: The day was great, the day was joyous, but I also felt this feeling of like, we have to hurry up and do this before they change their minds. There was that sense, always, that it was remarkable that it had been given and it would not have been unremarkable if it was taken away, and so let's just have our joy in this minute. Let's just do this. And harkening back to the idea of everybody in that room who was supporting us touching this broom, sending us their good vibes because who knew what was going to come in the months following, and at least we had this blessing of our nearest and dearest.

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