Tate Williams

Same-Sex Marriage Supporters Return to Cambridge City Hall to Celebrate Defeat of DOMA

Tate Williams July 12, 2013
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Originally published in Open Media Boston. |

It was right here on the steps of Cambridge City Hall, on May 17, 2004, where it all started. To the cheers of a crowd waiting eagerly outside, Cambridge opened its doors at the stroke of midnight on the day Massachusetts became the first state to cross the federal law of the land and allow same sex marriage.

So it was a fitting place for hundreds of supporters, many of whom were married here on that day nine years ago, to reconvene and celebrate the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act, struck down by Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision.

“There’s an old saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, and that first step was nine years ago in 2004,” said E. Denise Simmons, former Cambridge mayor and the first openly lesbian African American mayor in the country.

“I felt like it was our own emancipation, because not only was a yoke taken from around our neck, we were in the process of freeing ourselves from the tyranny of second-class citizenship,” she said in a fiery speech Wednesday.

The organizers of the event, equal rights groups like MassEquality and GLAD, were on pins and needles until around 10 a.m. Wednesday, learning like so many on the SCOTUS blog that the evening event would, in fact, be a celebration. The Supreme Court of the United States’ rulings on two same-sex marriage cases, while not going as far as they could to institutionalize equal treatment, were in their favor. Specifically, the core of DOMA, the 1996 federal ban on gay marriage, was found unconstitutional in a 5-4 split decision.

Organizers, politicians and advocates who have been defending marriage equality in Massachusetts for years spoke to the crowd on the lawn of the City Hall, occasionally huddled under rainbow umbrellas during summer downpours. Cambridge Mayor Henrietta Davis, Maura Healey from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, and state Rep. Carl Sciortino were among the speakers.

For a long-running campaign that is so often referred to as a fight, a battle, or a war, there was little to see at the event besides relief, elation, and a lot of happy couples. Pairs of all sorts embraced on the lawn, some with kids, others clearly expecting. In a community that for so many years found itself hearing mostly bad political news, this was visibly a long time coming.

“It makes me very happy that it’s happening. We’d all like things to happen quicker than they do, but they do happen,” said Bill Arnold, 59-year-old teacher who lives in Roslindale, after the rally.

“It just makes me feel good, it makes my soul smile, to think that there’s going to be some young kid who is going to want to come out, or who is going to realize that he or she is gay, and they’re not going to have the same kind of problems that I had.”

Arnold and his husband, Michael Bianchetta, 42, married in Massachusetts in 2006. Arnold came out as gay in 1975 when he was 21. He watched the violent struggles of the 1970s, lost a partner to AIDS in the 1980s, and for most of his life it never occurred to him he’d have the opportunity to get married. So he was enthusiastic about the opportunity.

“It made more of a difference than I thought it would,” said his husband, Bianchetta, who was hesitant at first, feeling like it was an institution that wasn’t necessary for them. “After doing it, it’s really hard to describe, but there is a little bit of an intangible difference, and it definitely makes a difference to be able to say to other people that this is my husband.”

Another couple at the rally, Eleanor Shavell, 63, and Diane Wernick, 53, of Watertown, had similar sentiments. They were here at midnight and married the day it became legal in Cambridge, at the encouragement of Shavell’s daughter. Even walking out of city hall at 3 a.m., they said there were people waiting outside throwing rice.

Shavell and Wernick were also surprised at how the act of getting married changed things for them, and even the day’s court decisions seemed to change things. “It keeps getting deeper,” Wernick said.

Not only that, with the DOMA decision, federal benefits will now be extended to same-sex marriages in states that allow it, which has tremendous practical benefits as Shavell is nearing retirement.

In some ways, the federal ruling—which does not guarantee equality in all states, but allows states to decide—seems like it happened quickly, with public opinion and politicians only in recent years starting to flip in support of same-sex marriage. But speakers at the event recalled that in the near-decade since the Massachusetts court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, it’s been constant legal, legislative and grassroots battles to defend the legal standing. Indeed, the state has been at the forefront of GLBT equality laws in multiple arenas.

“We won because of the hard work of so many people and organizations and activists. We won because of friends and allies who helped us,” said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, in her speech to the crowd.

“You don’t win major political or legal decisions simply because they’re the right thing to do. You win them because people pull together, work together, commit themselves to do everything they can to make it happen.”

The sense of victory was somewhat bittersweet, given the fact that 37 states still don’t allow same-sex marriage, not to mention the same Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act just the day before. But for the moment, it was time to celebrate.

As Isaacson said in her closing: “Now I think we should all go out and do what our opponents fear the most – let’s all be very, very gay.”

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