May 17, 2004 was a perfect day in Northampton, Massachusetts, aka Lesbianville, USA. The air was clear, the temperature was mild and there was not a cloud nor protester in sight. Though I was not planning on applying for a marriage license that morning since it is only good for sixty days and my beloved and I will legally tie the knot on September 10th, our 16th (non-legal) wedding anniversary, I made my way over to City Hall anyway. This was one party I would not miss for anything.
The City Clerk had announced that she’d be opening her office at 8:30. By 7:00 about 50 couples were lined up on the sidewalk. An hour later, they were joined by hundreds of supporters who could barely contain their joy. One woman handed out plastic miniature white wedding cake bubble-blowers. Someone else had baked an actual three-tier wedding cake for everyone to share. A child wearing a tee-shirt that said, “I love my two mommies” gave out home-made muffins. Mark Carmien, owner of Pride and Joy, our local GLBT book and tchotchke shop served mimosas. I made coffee and water runs. A man waved a homemade banner that said “And they lived equally ever after.” A young woman from the University of Massachusetts held a sign that simply said, “It’s about time.”
At exactly 8:30 the crowd parted like the Red Sea so that Gina Smith and Heidi Norton along with their two sons Avery aged seven, and Quinn aged four, could make their way to the front of the line. As they advanced, the crowd broke into a spontaneous chant, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”(Norton and Smith, who were to become the Nortonsmiths later that day were one of the seven plaintiff couples in the lawsuit that was responsible for the morning’s festivities). When the two women emerged a little while later after filling out their paperwork, they were greeted with loud cheers and applause, and pelted with birdseed (politically correct Northamptonites would never throw rice, which has been known to swell inside birds’ stomachs and prove fatal). I stood on the sidelines, tears streaming down my face as the couple and their children stood there beaming.
It is so hard to describe the atmosphere outside City Hall. The very air was humming with joy. It was like being on another planet-one where love, not hatred is the rule of the day. Even some of the newspaper reporters had tears streaming down their faces as couple after couple walked out the door of the building hand in hand, or holding children in their arms. After applying for marriage licenses, many couples walked the two short blocks down to the Courthouse to obtain a waiver (normally there is a three-day waiting period between applying for a marriage license and actually getting married). Waivers in hand, the couples returned. Some had waited ten years, some twenty, some thirty, and they didn’t want to wait a minute longer to enjoy the legal rights and privileges that marriage allows.
As the sun moved across the sky, more and more people joined the celebration. The Raging Grannies assembled to serenade the group with their own renditions of “Going to the Chapel” and “Here Come the Brides.” Someone handed out roses; someone else looped plastic rainbow-colored Hawaiian leis around everyone’s neck. More food arrived. Deejays, wedding planners, and caterers handed out business cards. A lesbian justice of the peace who called herself “J.M. the J.P.” stood there sweating in her long robe-the temperature was now in the eighties-so that anyone who had applied for a marriage license and received a waiver could get married on the spot.
By the end of the day, 113 couples, 112 of them gay or lesbian had applied for marriage licenses in my little town (normally 250 couples apply in a year). When the one token straight couple emerged from City Hall the crowd froze in stunned silence before someone yelled, “They can get married, too!” which made everyone laugh before they cheered and applauded.
I had spent the entire day witnessing commitment, happiness and love. The only other day that was so emotional for me was my own wedding day, on September 10, 1989. My beloved and I didn’t think about the fact that our union held no legal status. All we knew was we wanted to make a lifetime commitment to each other, which we did, surrounded by 65 of our nearest dearest, and queerest. At the end of that day, my face literally hurt, from smiling so much. My heart felt so full it almost burst. Which is how I felt today.
At about 6:00 my beloved and I, being good little lesbians, were cleaning up the area outside City Hall. As I tossed a paper cup into an overflowing trash can, someone pointed to a vase of flowers and asked me if I wanted to take them home.
“Whose are they?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” the woman said. “They were delivered earlier and no one has claimed them.”
“Look, there’s a card,” I said, and plucked it from among the pink roses. I read the words aloud, “In memory of Barbara and Valerie. Not in their lifetime, but in yours. For everyone.” Though I didn’t think I had any tears left in me, my cheeks grew wet as I absorbed the words I had just read. I never want to forget the members of the GLBT community who came before me and fought so hard for our rights, just as I hope those to come will never forget all the hard work people of my generation have done to bring us to this point. Someday the fact that gay and lesbian couples were prohibited from marrying will be as unbelievable as the notion that interracial marriages were once illegal. May it happen in our lifetime.
© 2004 Lesléa Newman