Valley residents, experts — including plaintiffs in 2004 landmark case — reflect on 10 years of gay marriage

Last modified: Sunday, May 18, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Reflecting on their 10th wedding anniversary Saturday, city residents Heidi and Gina Nortonsmith point to a number of ways their lives have changed since Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to legalize gay marriage.

They no longer travel with a “big packet of documents,” in Gina’s words, to prove they are parents of their two children, 17 and 14. They feel more secure about shared finances and job benefits.

Gina works as an educational support professional at Jackson Street School and Heidi is executive director of the Northampton Survival Center.

Still, the change that’s mattered most over the past decade, say the two women — who were among seven couples in the landmark 2004 case that led to the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage — is greater public acceptance of gay marriage.

“We don’t feel like such anomalies anymore,” said Gina, in an interview Friday morning at the breakfast table in their home in a neighborhood off Prospect Street. “We don’t feel so alone.”

Her wife agreed.

“Ten years ago we had to answer questions about ‘why marriage? Why not civil unions?’” Heidi said. “Other places we went, people weren’t as aware of what was going on. Now, the cause has been taken up in such a widespread way.”

In the decade since Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, 17 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. In seven other states, judges have struck down legislative bans on gay marriage — including Arkansas, where more than 400 same-sex weddings took place just this past week.

On Saturday, the 10th anniversary of their wedding ceremony in Childs Park, the Nortonsmiths will be in Boston engaged in national media interviews and celebrating the milestone with other supporters of the movement for marriage equality.

“It’s not that much different from 10 years ago,” said Gina, with a smile, recalling how the days leading up to their wedding were full of interviews about whether then-Gov. Mitt Romney would oppose the state’s new marriage law and prevent couples from marrying.

This year, the momentum has turned in the other direction, the Nortonsmiths say.

“At first, we had to convince people that this was the right thing to do,” Gina said. “Now, the proof is on the other side to say, ‘why not?’”

Local scholars say a decade of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts has helped erode arguments that the practice will harm the institution.

“We’ve shown the country that same-sex couples are like everybody else and that we can enlarge the definition of marriage without destabilizing it,” said Martha Umphrey, a professor in the department of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College.

While opposition to gay marriage still exists, Umphrey said more state courts appear to be agreeing with proponents that the ability to marry is a civil right that should be available to all.

“Constitutional issues are overtaking resistance” to gay marriage, she said. “The state court decisions of the last few years have mattered. I think in the next decade we will see the nationalization of same-sex marriage.”

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, is another who believes that target will be reached.

Rosenberg recalls being part of panel discussion on gay marriage 10 years ago during which speakers said it would take 25 to 50 years for the marriage equality movement “to fully mature and be respected,” he said.

“I am pleasantly surprised that we now have 17 states where the matter is completely resolved,” said Rosenberg, who is in line to become the first openly gay president of the Massachusetts State Senate. “Basically, the majority of the country is in some state of recognition” of gay marriage.

The impact of Massachusetts’ gay marriage law has been to “validate the lives of tens of thousands of families,” Rosenberg said. “That has enormous value to those families and also to the community at large.”

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, senior pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church, said that has certainly been the case for her congregation, which includes a large proportion of LGBT members.

“I think there is a sense of affirmation and relief and gratitude, where people who had felt invisible and discriminated against have been told, ‘we see your love and we honor you,’” she said.

Ayvazian noted that the positive impact of legalizing same-sex marriage is not limited to gay people.

“We’re talking about a civil right that moves us all forward,” she said. “We have a shared sense of accomplishment about this.”

Lee Badgett, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, estimates that the more than 22,000 same-sex weddings performed in the state over the past decade have generated $37 million annually in spending on hotels, license fees and other businessses.

Gay marriage has also resulted “in all sorts of psychological benefits” for couples, she said, including “feeling more like partners” and citizens. As more same-sex couples have married in Massachusetts and other states, the practice has become more accepted, Badgett said.

“I think that’s one of the reasons we are seeing so much change so quickly” on the national level, she added.

“People are seeing their friends and family members marrying. What’s important is how quickly this just becomes normal.”

Gwen Agna, principal of Jackson Street School — where the Nortonsmiths’ eldest son, Avery, was a student when his mothers joined the 2004 gay-marriage lawsuit — said teachers and children now routinely talk about families as including same-sex parents.

“It’s now so accepted and relaxed,” she said. “It’s just common practice to talk about families as more than mom and dad.”

For Heidi and Gina Nortonsmith, both 49, perhaps the deeper joy of their 10th wedding anniversary is that they could be as focused in the past few days on preparations for their son Quinn’s eighth grade dance as on celebrations of marriage equality in Boston.

The burden of being one of a handful of same-sex married couples in the state has lifted and the issue is now framed as a concern that goes beyond the gay community, they said.

“Instead of us being described as abhorrent, it’s now the discrimination” against same-sex couples in states where gay marriage is still illegal that’s seen as the problem, Gina noted.

Support at home

Both she and Heidi credited the supportive atmosphere of Northampton — which already had an anti-discrimination law on the books in 2004 — as the reason they felt comfortable joining the state’s landmark case for gay marriage and able to handle the national attention that followed.

“By telling our story, we made it personal and made it easier for others to tell about their lives,” Gina said.

“In that way our role has not changed at all from 10 years ago,” Heidi added. “Telling your story and being out is important. You always have to make that decision to be yourself.”