Thank You, Ralph and Paul: Reflecting on 10 years of marriage in Massachusetts

Editors' Note: This post was originally published in Bay Windows by Freedom to Marry's National Campaign Director, Marc Solomon. He began working on marriage in 2001 as a volunteer with the Massachusetts Freedom to Marry Coalition. He then served as executive director of MassEquality and today is national campaign director of Freedom to Marry. His upcoming book, Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits —and Won, with a foreword from Governor Deval Patrick, will be available on November 12.

I will never, ever forget May 17, 2004, the day that same-sex couples began marrying in Massachusetts. I was then legislative director for the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts (and have been working full-time at the cause ever since!). 

The scene in Cambridge at 12:01 am was one of unmitigated joy—hundreds and hundreds of same-sex couples lined up for marriage licenses for the first time in US history, and thousands of ecstatic onlookers. Among the couples were my friends Ralph Hodgdon and the late Paul McMahon. Then aged sixty-nine and seventy-one, they had been at home watching the 11 o’clock news and when they saw the massive outpouring at Cambridge City Hall, they decided they had to be there.

For me, Ralph and Paul’s marriage embodied powerfully what the significance of what transpired on May 17, 2004, when legal marriage for same-sex couples became real for the first time in American history.

I first met Ralph and Paul at a Boston Pride celebration, where they were marching with their simple yet profound sign: “Together 47 Years.” They became symbols of our cause, proud to show the world that same-sex relationships embody love and deep commitment and can endure for a lifetime, even through years of hardship imposed by a homophobic society, along with the ups and downs that every relationship has. 

That night at City Hall, holding their sign that now read, “Together 48 Years,” they drew number 249, so they’d have to wait for hours until they got their chance. But to them, that was nothing compared to the forty-eight years they’d already waited.

The two had lived as out gay men for most of their lives. In Boston’s Bay Village, they found community but endured harassment by gangs of thugs who would periodically come to wreck trees and smash window boxes. The police provided no protection; they were more likely to threaten or dismiss gay people than take their complaints seriously. They became activists, joining up in Boston’s early Pride parades in the 1970s, marching alongside teachers who wore paper bags over their heads because they could be fired for being gay, and enduring jeers and avoiding thrown tomatoes on the route that police refused to protect. 

"For me, Ralph and Paul’s marriage embodied powerfully what the significance of what transpired on May 17, 2004,"

That night of May 17, 2004, things couldn’t have been more different. When they emerged from City Hall around 5:00 a.m., there was still a crowd of well-wishers applauding them. Good Morning America grabbed them for an interview. They were beaming. And they married a week and a half later, on May 29, on their forty-ninth anniversary, in Boston’s Public Gardens.

Sadly, Paul passed away in the spring of 2011, after nearly seven years of marriage and 56 years of being together with Ralph. When I saw Ralph earlier this year, he told me how powerfully significant their marriage had been, both as a symbol of the commitment of their relationship and as a practical matter, as it enabled him to make medical decisions for Paul in his waning days.

Today, same-sex couples are marrying in Arkansas, along with 17 other states and the District of Columbia. Fifty-nine percent of Americans now support the freedom to marry, with majorities in every region of the country. And as of this week, with the affirmative court ruling in Idaho, we’ve prevailed in 12 out of 12 federal lawsuits since the Supreme Court struck down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. We are winning (though we haven’t yet won).

There are many reasons for that. But none is more important than the fact that the freedom to marry was made real on May 17, 2004, in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, so that couples like Ralph and Paul, and so many others, could show Americans that same-sex couples have powerful, enduring relationships, that marriage matters so much to them, and as a result that it’s in the best tradition of America to treat committed same-sex couples with full dignity and equality—and that includes the freedom to marry.

Thank you, Massachusetts. And thank you, Ralph and Paul.