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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Cambridge Ushers In Era of Same-Sex Marriage

Harvard students, faculty

By Jessica R. Rubin-wills, Crimson Staff Writer

Six months after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) sanctioned same-sex marriages, Lowell House Masters Diana L. Eck and Dorothy A. Austin stood outside a packed Cambridge City Hall, watching the ruling come to life and looking forward to a wedding of their own.

Over 225 same-sex couples raced to file for their marriage licenses in Cambridge when the ruling took effect at midnight on May 17, but Eck and Austin opted to avoid the rush and have since announced plans to marry on July 4 in Memorial Church.

“It will be a celebration of our constitution, our nation, the courts—it’s a wonderful day. And there will forever be fireworks on our anniversary,” said Austin, who is a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and associate minister at Memorial Church.

Cambridge—a city dubbed “the People’s Republic” and well known for its liberal leanings—prided itself on being the first municipality in the nation to allow same-sex couples to file for state-sanctioned marriage licenses.

Members of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA), along with a large contingent of other Harvard students, traveled to City Hall to witness the early-morning festivities.

“No one that went to the event walked away without being touched and affected by it,” said Mayor Michael A. Sullivan. “No matter how people felt about the underlying issue, you really walked away touched and reinvigorated in terms of the depth of human compassion.”

The reaction on campus was largely positive, reflecting the fact that about 77 percent of students said in a mid-December Crimson poll that they supported the SJC ruling.

But as same-sex weddings continue across the state, opponents are gearing up to challenge gay marriage on both the state and national levels, leading to uncertainty about the ruling’s long-term legacy.

SAYING ‘I DO’

The SJC paved the way for last month’s same-sex weddings with its landmark ruling on Nov. 18 declaring that homosexual couples have a constitutional right to marry.

“Barred access to the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage, a person who enters into an intimate, exclusive union with another of the same sex is arbitrarily deprived of membership in one of our community’s most rewarding and cherished institutions,” the court declared in its majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, Harvard’s former general counsel.

“That exclusion is incompatible with the constitutional principles of respect for individual autonomy and equality under law,” the 4-3 decision continued.

The court delayed its ruling from taking effect for 180 days in order to allow the legislature to make the necessary changes to the state laws.

The SJC opinion provoked immediate criticism from gay marriage opponents including Gov. W. Mitt Romney, who advocated for an amendment to the state constitution limiting marriage to heterosexual couples as a way to circumvent the court’s ruling.

But Cambridge politicians were just as quick to praise the decision, with two councillors announcing the day after the ruling that they would take steps to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses in the city immediately, despite the 180-day stay period.

“When you’re in a community that has been denied their rights and privileges for such a long time, then you will understand our impatience,” E. Denise Simmons, an openly gay councillor and one of the co-sponsors of the order, told the council at their Nov. 24 meeting. “Whether the state wants to give us licenses or not, I think Cambridge should do it anyway.”

But after lawyers advised them that licenses issued before the end of the 180-day period might be subject to legal challenges that would further delay the process, the councillors voted instead to begin granting licenses “as soon as legally possible.”

“To push forward now would simply drag the process out in a legal quagmire that would probably take more than 180 days,” said Councillor Brian P. Murphy ’86-’87, the other co-sponsor of the original order. “This is an exciting time and I want to move forward as quickly as we can.”

‘GOING TO THE CHAPEL’

Six months later, Cambridge began issuing licenses as soon as legally possible, allowing couples to file forms declaring their intention to marry at midnight on May 17.

As hundreds of couples streamed into City Hall the night before, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Fowler-Finn and Chief Public Health Officer Harold Cox, decked out in tuxedoes, handed out numbers to each couple indicating their place in line to file the forms.

“Welcome to Cambridge for this historic long-awaited event,” read the instructions given to each couple as they entered the building, which was decorated with wreaths and ribbons for the occasion.

As members of the media from across the country—and some from as far away as Great Britain and The Netherlands—gathered nearby in a roped-off section, some of the couples turned the lens back on them, recording all aspects of the night on their hand-held video cameras for posterity.

Sullivan Chamber was packed with the couples and their supporters who gathered an hour before midnight to listen to speeches and musical performances as a digital clock counted down the minutes until gay marriage became legal.

“I just want to be here as part of history,” said State Sen. Jarrett T. Barrios ’90, an openly gay politician and vocal advocate of same-sex marriage who was on hand to watch the festivities.

In her invocation, Rev. Irene Monroe likened the occasion to the legalization of interracial marriage or the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which occurred 50 years to the day before gay marriage became legal.

She added that the traditional wedding pronouncement of a couple as “man and wife” could now change to “husband and husband,” “wife and wife” or “spouse and spouse.”

“But my favorite is this: ‘I now pronounce you married,’” Monroe said, with the ovation growing louder as she continued, “under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

The Cambridge Community Chorus drew smiles and got some in the chamber to sing along to their rendition of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

Mary Bonauto of the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the lead attorney on behalf of the gay couples in the SJC case, received thunderous applause as the crowd chanted her name.

“This decision was controversial in the eyes of some, courageous in the eyes of others,” she said of the SJC ruling. “But I think we will all come to see that this decision was undoubtedly correct.”

As couples listened to the speakers and music, some of them wiped away tears, others held each other and one couple sang quietly under their breath, “We’re going to the chapel and we’re going to get married.”

And the ceremony was punctuated with cheers from the throngs gathered outside who filled the City Hall lawn and across Mass. Ave.

“I’ve never been so proud to be from Cambridge,” said Arthur Lipkin of the Cambridge Lavender Alliance, a gay and lesbian advocacy group.

He added after hearing cheers from outside, “They’ve never been so proud to be from Cambridge!”

The couples who filed in Cambridge were among over one thousand same-sex couples to be married across Massachusetts in the first days after the court ruling took effect.

Twenty-three couples in Cambridge and more across the state obtained court waivers of the three-day waiting period and received their marriage licenses on May 17.

AFTER THE HONEYMOON

Following the court decision in Massachusetts, several other communities across the nation—from Oregon to New Jersey—defied their own state laws to award marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

San Francisco issued 4,200 licenses until the state’s Supreme Court ordered the city to stop in March, and the mayor of New Paltz in upstate New York faces criminal charges for granting licenses to 25 gay couples.

But even in Massachusetts, the only place to issue state-sanctioned licenses, the future of same-sex marriage remains uncertain.

In February, after the state senate asked the SJC for an advisory opinion on whether a compromise bill allowing civil unions would satisfy the court’s ruling, the justices responded in a 4-3 decision that only marriage would be constitutional.

“The dissimilitude between the terms ‘civil union’ and ‘civil marriage’ is not innocuous; it is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status,” the justices wrote in their majority opinion.

The court’s decision followed the advice of 18 Harvard Law School professors who joined 72 other legal scholars from across the country in January to urge the SJC to reject the civil unions proposal.

“I thought it was important, as did a large number of the best constitutional law scholars and legal historians in the country, to weigh in on whether there really is any ambiguity,” said Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law Laurence H. Tribe ’62, who wrote the friend-of-the-court brief. “I thought it was clear that there wasn’t any.”

But Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 said the court overstepped its bounds, calling the decision “outrageous and outlandlish.”

“They’ve just taken the phrase of equal protection that has no legal connection to marriage and used it as an excuse to impose their own beliefs on the rest of us,” he said.

In March, the Massachusetts State Legislature began debate on an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. Harvard students, including members of the BGLTSA and Harvard College Democrats, rallied outside the State House in opposition.

On March 11, the legislature voted in favor of an amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples but establishing civil unions for same-sex couples.

After clearing another vote later in the month, the amendment must now receive the support of a newly-elected legislature in the 2005-2006 session before it is put to a statewide referendum.

Several Cambridge representatives, including Barrios, have been especially vocal in their opposition to the amendment.

“Don’t believe those who tell you that just defining marriage between a man and a woman will not hurt your gay and lesbian friends, your family members, your neighbors and your colleagues, because it will,” Barrios told the legislature on Feb. 12.

State Representative Timothy J. Toomey, who also serves as a city councillor, voted against the proposed amendment and said he hopes it will not pass in the legislature again.

“Hopefully between now and next year people’s attitudes will shift and be more accepting of everybody having the equal rights to marriage,” he said.

Meanwhile, on the national level, both candidates for president have voiced their opposition to same-sex marriage.

Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., has said he supports civil unions but is against gay marriage and disagrees with the SJC’s ruling.

And President Bush announced on Feb. 24 that he would support a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying.

Despite the challenges on the horizon, supporters of same-sex marriage said they remain optimistic that the SJC ruling will not be overridden.

Murphy said in an interview earlier this month that he believed “the world has shifted irrevocably” after the court’s decision, because any measure to ban gay marriage would involve rescinding a right that same-sex couples now have.

“What’s happened now even just a few weeks later is that this is really just now a routine bureaucratic procedure,” he said.

And Margaret C.D. Barusch ’06, a member of the BGLTSA, expressed a similar sentiment after witnessing the celebration at City Hall.

“Once people start seeing that all these people are getting married and the sky is not falling, I think it will become a non-issue,” she said.

BGLTSA member Jordan B. Woods ’06 said he hoped to one day tell his children about the scene at City Hall, and added that the possibility of a ban on same-sex marriage will keep him involved in gay rights advocacy.

“We still have to keep on fighting,” he said. “Even though we were able to recognize a historic moment on May 17, if we don’t continue being active and pushing for what we want, then we are not going to get that.”

—Andrew C. Esensten, Michael M. Grynbaum and Claire Provost contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Staff writer Jessica R. Rubin-Wills can be reached at rubinwil@fas.harvard.edu.

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