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A gay couple clasp hands in response to applause from a large crowd as they emerge from City Hall after applying for a marriage license in the early hours of May 17, 2004 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Cambridge same-sex marriage milestone turns 15 this May

City was first in the nation to sanction such nuptials, though quantifying the move’s economic effects remains elusive

Shortly after 9 a.m. on May 17, 2004, a Monday, Marcia Kadish and Tanya McCloskey of Malden stepped before Cambridge City Clerk Margaret Drury to become the first legally wed same-sex couple in the United States.

The pair—who had been together for 18 years before the big day—were among at least 78 same-sex couples to marry in Massachusetts that day.

Some 1,000 same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses during the same 24-hour period, according to a Boston Globe survey, among them Marcia Hams and Susan Shepherd, who were the first to apply for and receive a marriage license—also in Cambridge.

Same-sex marriage became legal in the commonwealth just after midnight on May 17, following a labyrinthine legal and political journey. And couples began entering Cambridge City Hall in the wee hours to fill out applications for marriage licenses.

Thousands of spectators also started to gather before dawn in front of City Hall, a richly Richardsonian Romanesque-style complex with a 158-foot bell tower perched on a hill overlooking the city’s Central Square neighborhood.

The scene would repeat itself across Massachusetts that morning, but Cambridge laid claim to the first wedding ceremony. That milestone has been good economically for the city of 113,000 across the Charles River from Boston.

At Cambridge City Hall, Marcia Kadish (left) and Tanya McCloskey exchange rings as they are married before Clerk D. Margaret Drury at Cambridge City Hall. They were the first couple to be married in Cambridge on May 17, 2004.
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In 2016, the Advocate, an LGBTQ-centric national magazine, named Cambridge the third-queerest city in America. While the nod did not note the marriage milestone, it did cite Cambridge’s friendliness toward gays and lesbians, including through its culture and entertainment as well as how that friendliness had impacted the city’s economy.

“The queer community in Cambridge exists outside the walls of Harvard Yard,” the Advocate wrote. “The progressive city, often jumbled together with Boston, is also home to a thriving gay- and lesbian-owned business scene in which many belong to the Greater Boston Business Council.”

More recently, business advisory organization Out Leadership named Massachusetts the most LGBTQ-inclusive state in the nation. The “State LGBT+ Business Climate Index,” which was released May 1 and appeared to be the first of its kind, sought to rank every state for its LGBTQ-friendliness.

Massachusetts finished just ahead of California in a final tally of 20 indicators, which included whether states had bans on so-called conversion therapy, how impartial elected officials were toward LGBTQ residents, and whether employers could legally discriminate based on sexual orientation.

Massachusetts’s 2004 move on same-sex marriage did not enter into the calculations for the rankings, Out Leadership founder and CEO Todd Sears said. But the state’s reputation as particularly LGBTQ-friendly, in part because of that milestone, does help Massachusetts draw and retain professional talent, he said.

Much of that talent clusters in Cambridge, the population of which has grown by a net of 10,000 residents since 2004. Its Kendall Square is one of the foremost hubs for technology in the United States, and the city also hosts two major research universities: Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (also in Kendall).

The two schools, in fact, are Cambridge’s largest employers. Major technology and biotechnology companies also have offices in the city, including Biogen, Novartis, Pfizer, IBM, and Google, which is developing new space in Kendall.

Cambridge’s status as first in the nation for same-sex marriage could be a boon for tourism as well as business. Officials said the city does not track LGBTQ-related tourism, but that it is surely part of the overall Cambridge economic ecosystem.

“Diversity is so interwoven within the culture of Cambridge that it would be difficult for our office to track who is an LGBTQ tourist,” Robyn Culbertson, executive director of the Cambridge Office for Tourism, said in a statement.

The events of May 17, 2004, were many years in the making and ended up as a close-run thing, but the most immediate precursor was a November 2003 ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts’s highest bench, that it was unconstitutional to allow only heterosexual couples to marry. That ruling stemmed from a lawsuit that 11 plaintiffs had brought against the state Public Health Department and the public health commissioner.

The state had 180 days to implement the court’s ruling, with the legislature empowered to take any actions it deemed necessary. Some legislators wanted to do just that, and the governor at the time, Mitt Romney, believed the judicial court had overstepped its authority and lobbied to add an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage.

Moira Barrett (L) and Johanna Schulman, of Cambridge, ride in a car on June 12, 2004 during the 34th annual Boston Gay Pride Parade in Boston, Massachusetts.
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Meanwhile, the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling had left one big thing unclear. Might existing civil unions go far enough in meeting the new standard that the high court had handed down? No, they would not: A majority of justices explained in January 2004 that their ruling meant that only marriage equaled equality, according to the Cambridge Historical Society.

The countdown was on. The atmosphere was charged.

“While Cambridge has a reputation for progressive politics, one has to remember the context in which the Cambridge City Council and the City Clerk made the decision to open City Hall at one minute past midnight and issue the first same-sex marriage license in America,” the Cambridge Historical Society notes:

At this time, U.S. President George W. Bush had just called on Congress “to pass, and to send to the states for ratification, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and a woman as husband and wife.” There was opposition to the idea of “non-traditional” unions from both sides of the aisle, even in Massachusetts.

But once the number of days since the Supreme Judicial Court decision clicked over to 180, Romney ordered clerks throughout the commonwealth to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples if requested.

A 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case would, of course, open same-sex marriage to the entire country, and the 2004 milestone in Cambridge would become a point on a timeline ending there. But its impact remains acute locally 15 years on—perhaps most poignantly in a rainbow crosswalk outside of City Hall. Officials rolled that out in 2016.