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Eager couples line up early, gain Massachusetts licenses / 'S.F. isn't there yet,' groom boasts

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Staff Writer

May 17, 2004

2004-05-17 Cambridge , Mass. -- Gay and lesbian couples of all ages, lifted by the cheers and applause of friends, family and on-lookers, climbed the steps of City Hall early today to fulfill what many said was a once-unattainable dream -- marriage.

Bren Bataclan, 35, formerly of Daly City, and his partner, Robert Parlin, 40, waited as officials at Cambridge City Hall, clad in tuxedos, prepared to hand out applications just after midnight for the nation's first state- sanctioned same-sex marriages.

"I'm a San Francisco boy who feels like he is at the epicenter of the gay movement," Bataclan said.

"I'm glad to be here. San Francisco isn't there yet, except for one, brief, shining moment," he said referring to Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision in February to grant same-sex couples marriage licenses until he was stopped by a legal challenge.

But Sunday night into this morning, hundreds of same-sex couples began receiving the government's blessing for marriage as a result of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's 4-3 ruling in November that gays and lesbians had a right under the state constitution to wed.

Mark Bozzuti-Jones, Associate Rector blesses (l to r) Melanie Adem (cq) and Sarah Corvene, both of Sommerville, Massachusetts. Couples get blessed at Christ Church, an Episcopal church in Cambridge at an interfaith celebration on the eve of this historic day. This will be the first time in U.S. History a state, Massachusetts, will begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples with approval of the highest court. Deanne Fitzmaurice /The Chronicle

Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston and home to Harvard University, decided to seize the earliest moment to begin the process of granting same-sex couples the historic right that gay-rights advocates are seeking in dozens of states.

Mayor Michael Sullivan toasted the crowd inside City Hall, saying, "May we have those in our arms that we love in our hearts."

Marcia Hams, 56, and her partner of 27 years, Susan Shepherd, 52, of Cambridge -- who showed up at midnight Saturday as the first couple in line -- were the first to cut a three-tiered wedding cake delivered to City Hall to mark the occasion. Same-sex weddings were expected to begin later today, once judges grant couples' requests to waive the state's standard three-day waiting period.

Hams and Shepherd, who were one of five couples stationed outside City Hall by midafternoon Sunday, sat in lawn chairs, donned rain jackets to protect themselves from a light drizzle, and drank plenty of coffee. Sunday morning, a young man approached them and gave them a large red flower, saying, "I wish you a long and happy marriage."

Massachusetts was thrust into the center of the nationwide debate on same- sex marriage when its high court gave the go-ahead in November. In the days leading up to today's deadline for same-sex weddings to begin, federal courts turned down requests by opponents to stop the weddings.

The Massachusetts ruling touched off a wave of same-sex marriages across the country earlier this year, emboldening officials such as Newsom, and those in upstate New York and Portland, Ore., to issue marriage licenses as acts of civil disobedience.

San Francisco issued 4,037 marriage licenses to couples from 46 states and eight other countries between Feb. 12 and March 11 before it was stopped by the California Supreme Court pending the outcome of a legal challenge.

Even though the courts ordered a halt to the wedding marches, opponents have pushed for a federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which President Bush has endorsed. A proposal for a constitutional ban is pending in Congress.

The ruling also galvanized opponents in Massachusetts, prompting lawmakers in this heavily Democratic, Roman Catholic state to adopt a state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage but legalize Vermont- style civil unions. The earliest it could wind up on the ballot is 2006 -- possibly casting a shadow on the legality of thousands of same-sex marriages that could take place before then.

As of today, Massachusetts joins the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Canada's three most populous provinces as the only places worldwide where homosexuals can marry, though the rest of Canada is expected to follow soon.

Across the state Sunday, gay-rights advocates held Countdown to Equality parties to celebrate the impending nuptials and to keep attention focused on the political fights ahead.

"I have a younger crowd of friends, and I wanted to create some awareness, " said Josiah Richards, who was hosting a barbecue for about 35 people in Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood Sunday.

Today marks the culmination of a legal battle by seven couples that began in April 2001 after they were denied marriage licenses. Clerks in the state's 351 cities and towns have made plans to bring in volunteers and expand their work space in anticipation of a deluge of couples.

Out-of-state gay couples, meanwhile, are likely to challenge the state's 1913 marriage statute, which Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, an opponent of same- sex marriage, has cited to limit marriages only to Massachusetts residents. The law, which gay-rights advocates have labeled discriminatory, bars out-of- state couples from marrying if the union would be illegal in their home state.

Several local officials, including those in Provincetown, Worcester and Somerville, have said they will not enforce Romney's order.

Although there were some protesters carrying signs, the mood inside and outside Cambridge City Hall was overwhelmingly celebratory as Sunday night turned into this morning. Couples, many with children, were serenaded by the Boston Women's Rainbow Chorus.

"I haven't seen anyone without a smile yet," said Connie Arseneault, 61, standing with her partner, Sally Giacosanzio, 55, of Waltham. "It's something we've waited for for 23 years."

Giacosanzio said they never thought much about marriage before last fall because "we came out of the women's movement. Feminists saw traditional marriage as something totally reactionary."

But when the court ruled in November, she said, marriage suddenly "became something progressive, an achievement of civil rights. It completely turned the tables."

Arseneault said the ruling made the couple feel like full and equal citizens.

"It's great to be out here," she said. "Just standing in line, it's really happening. It's great to think we'll really be married and we'll be a fine example of marriage."

Mary Bonauto, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case that led to the marriage ruling, arrived at Cambridge City Hall to soak up the joy and participate in history.

Same-sex marriage, she said, "is controversial in the eyes of some, courageous in the eyes of others, but I think we will come to see, undoubtedly correct."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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