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Massachusetts Begins Allowing Gays to Wed

A marriage license is issued to the first same-sex pair early today. Couples wishing to do likewise must consider the legal and cultural consequences.

May 17, 2004|Elizabeth Mehren | Time Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As more than 1,000 supporters cheered outside City Hall, Marcia Hams and Susan Shepherd raised their right hands at 12:08 this morning and became the first same-sex couple to obtain a marriage license in Massachusetts.

Hams, 56, and Shepherd, 52, had camped outside City Hall for 24 hours to become couple No.1, making history themselves just as Massachusetts did by becoming the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

"I'm shaking so much," said Hams, a healthcare advocate. "I'm really ready to faint."

Shepherd, a graduate student, said she was "overwhelmed" as the pair wended their way through a sea of supporters.

"This is about so much more than us," she said. "But it's about us, too."

The pair, who met 27 years ago while working as machinists at a General Electric Co. plant, plan to marry Friday.

By allowing City Clerk Margaret Drury to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples the moment it became legal to do so, Cambridge turned a normally mundane bureaucratic process into a giant celebration.

Garlands of white bridal netting tied with lavender bows adorned City Hall's ornate wooden banisters.

The pastry chef from a local hotel baked two elaborate wedding cakes. City officials served sparkling apple cider in plastic champagne glasses. Inside City Hall, three choruses performed, including one composed of the children of couples seeking marriage licenses. The children sang about the joy of diversity.

"They're not just opening the door to us, they're throwing us a party," said marriage license applicant Mark Jones, 55.

On the sidewalk outside City Hall, couples hugged and kissed, and from time to time, hundreds broke into the song "Chapel of Love."

Only Cambridge chose to open its city offices for the all-night session. Other cities were to begin issuing licenses at 8 this morning. Massachusetts requires a three-day waiting period, but many couples were expected to seek court waivers that would allow them to marry immediately.

All seven plaintiff couples in Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health -- the lawsuit that generated the court decision legalizing same-sex marriage -- are obtaining waivers and plan to marry today.

But for Austin Naughton and his partner of five years, the celebration at City Hall had a bittersweet quality. The pair will not be trading wedding vows. Naughton's partner, who is Spanish and did not want to be identified, is in the United States on a non-immigrant visa.

"If we marry, he could be deported," Naughton said Sunday -- because the federal government's 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is in direct conflict with the law in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

The new state law comes after months of battle in the Legislature, the judicial system and the court of public opinion. Thousands of gay and lesbian couples in hundreds of communities across the commonwealth were expected to apply for marriage licenses today.

But with marriage, gay and lesbian couples may face a host of legal and cultural obstacles. The barriers extend beyond the conflict between Massachusetts and the federal government, which under the Defense of Marriage Act will deny same-sex couples more than 1,100 rights and protections attached to marriage.

Gay and lesbian couples who are binational, such as Naughton and his partner, may find that marriage jeopardizes the immigration status of the foreign-born partner. Because the federal government does not acknowledge same-sex marriage, such a union could affect an immigrant's visa status. In the U.S. military, an "attempted marriage" to a person of the same sex is considered grounds for discharge. Same-sex couples who are married may be disqualified from foreign adoption.

"Getting married may disqualify you from certain government benefit programs, or may raise your profile or your sexual orientation to government authorities," warned a "Tips and Traps" section about marriage that the group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD, recently added to its website. "Yours may be a situation in which marriage's legal consequences are disadvantageous to you or your family."

On the eve of the legalization of same-sex marriage here, the confusion prompted a group of gay and lesbian lawyers to hold public seminars outlining some of the possible pitfalls.

"There are hundreds of questions about 'what if this?' and 'what if that?' " said Joyce Kaufman, a Cambridge attorney who chairs the family law section of the state's Lesbian and Gay Bar Assn. Kaufman conducted presentations in Boston and in Provincetown -- a Cape Cod resort that has the country's highest concentration of gays and lesbians, according to the 2000 U.S. census.

Hundreds of people attended the sessions, Kaufman said, "and every time I went to one of those seminars, new legal questions bubbled up."

One "broad stroke example," Kaufman said, involves the rights and benefits that the federal government extends to married people.

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