WHITINSVILLE, Mass. - Twenty years after he met the love of his life, nearly five years after their wedding helped make history, it took a nasty bout of pneumonia for Gary Chalmers to fully appreciate the blessings of marriage.
"I was out of work for eight weeks, spent a week in the hospital," Chalmers said. "That was the first time I really felt thankful for the sense of the security we had, with Rich there, talking with the physicians, helping make decisions. ... It really made a difference."
At stake was the most basic recognition of marital bonds — something most spouses take for granted. But until May 17, 2004, when Chalmers and Richard Linnell were among a surge of same-sex couples marrying in Massachusetts, it was legally unavailable to American gays and lesbians.
Since that day, four other states — Connecticut in 2008, and Iowa, Vermont and Maine this year — have legalized same-sex marriage, and more may follow soon. A measure just approved by New Hampshire's legislature awaits the governor's decision on whether to sign. But Massachusetts was the first, providing a five-year record with which to gauge the consequences.
At the time of those first weddings, the debate was red-hot — protests were frequent, expectations ran high that legislators would allow a referendum on whether to overturn the court ruling ordering same-sex marriage. Now, although Roman Catholic leaders and some conservative activists remain vocally opposed, there is overwhelming political support for same-sex marriage and no prospect for a referendum.
According to the latest state figures, through September 2008, there had been 12,167 same-sex marriages in Massachusetts — 64 percent of them between women — out of 170,209 marriages in all. Some consequences have been tangible — a boom for gay-friendly wedding businesses, the exit of a Roman Catholic charity from the adoption business — and some almost defy description.
"Having your committed relationships recognized — to say it's deeply meaningful is to trivialize it," said Mary Bonauto, lead lawyer in the landmark lawsuit. "I know people who'd been together 20 years who say, 'Getting married — it knocked my socks off.'"
No gay community to speak of
Chalmers and Linnell were among seven gay and lesbian couples recruited by Bonauto's team to be the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
They had been partners since meeting in Worcester in 1988, and now live nearby in Linnell's childhood house in the rural outskirts of Whitinsville with their 16-year-old daughter, Paige, whom they adopted as an infant.
The south-central town of 6,300, with no gay community to speak of, is relatively far from cosmopolitan Boston and the gay vacation mecca of Provincetown, but the family feels thoroughly comfortable.
Paige, who brims with self-confidence, is helping form a gay-straight alliance at her high school. When her fathers got married, she said, "all my friends were saying they wanted to come to the wedding."
Chalmers, an elementary school curriculum coordinator in nearby Shrewsbury, and Linnell, nurse manager at a medical center, say they didn't need the wedding to prove their commitment to one another, but they appreciate the added legal stability and the recognition they get from others.
"Before, we had wills, we had power of attorney," Chalmers said. "But the fact of the matter was, you can't make up for the thousand or so rights that are given to married couples."
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I just thought this was a nice story. I believe that people will grow accustomed to marriage equality, it'll stop seeming strange or scary to all but the most determined bigots, and then yay: equal rights for everyone, in every state.