Under an awning outside City Hall in Cambridge, Mass., as a street sweeper roared around midnight, Marcia Hams and Susan Shepherd wondered if someone would try to shoot them.
That night a decade ago, they were the first and only people in line to become the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in the United States. With no police around just yet, they worried about a protester targeting them.
Hams, now 66, and Shepherd, 62, ended up waiting without incident a total of 24 hours before they did indeed become the first of hundreds of couples to get their marriage licenses on May 17, 2004, in the first state to have legalized same-sex marriage.
“This is about so much more than us,” Shepherd told the Los Angeles Times that day. “But it’s about us, too.”
In the decade since, court rulings and new laws have legalized same-sex marriages in more than 20 states. But as court appeals continue, parts of only 17 states and the District of Columbia were issuing same-sex marriage licenses, as of Saturday. Oregon could join the list as soon as Monday when a federal judge is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the state’s ban on gay marriage.
Hams and Shepherd, who met 37 years ago as General Electric Co. machinists, recalled their experience from a decade ago during a radio show this week.
“It was so moving to actually have the whole community recognize our relationship,” Hams told WBUR. “We could talk naturally about our relationship as heterosexual couples do and really have that mean something. It’s constantly reinforced every time you say ‘my wife Susan and I.’”
They received their marriage license after swearing on oath before a clerk.
Then they walked into a crowd of more than 1,000 supporters who celebrated with apple cider provided by the city and cake from a local bakery. City Hall’s banisters had been decorated with bridal bunting, and a chorus was on hand for the festivities.
“I’m shaking so much,” Hams said that early morning. “I’m really ready to faint.”
The couple married the next weekend, before their regular church service, but didn’t hold a large celebration until September.
They said they rushed to have a small ceremony because of fear that lawmakers would try to find a way to supersede the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that struck down a ban on gay marriage. Lawmakers, and others, did indeed try. And those efforts later failed.
Shepherd told WBUR that being able to marry had a “profound” effect on their now 34-year-old son, Peter.
“Peter came to us: … ‘Are you going to adopt me now?’” Shepherd said. “Getting me on his birth certificate … now, he had a real family he could go to the world with. You forget how much the kids feel the brunt of this in the public. This was extremely liberating for all of our children.”
The couple said local organizations recruited them to be the first in line because their family embodied professionalism and poise, and it was hoped they would refute the argument of critics that gay parents would have a deleterious effect on the upbringing of children.
“That’s been important to the trajectory of gay marriage,” Hams said. “Nothing was more persuasive than seeing us be married, and seeing nothing bad happen, only good things.”
The couple said they were looking forward to their 10th wedding anniversary, though it was unclear if it would be as raucous as the original event.
“We couldn’t stop people from coming,” Shepherd said of their wedding.