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Posted by brian at 05:01PM, Friday, December 05th, 2003

Happy Desegregation Day

Brian writes:

We were couple 243.

Aaron and I have just returned from applying for one of the first fully legal same-sex marriages liceneses in the United States. The news coverage I've read so far barely captures the momentous sense of the scene at Cambridge City Hall last night and this morning -- the raw energy of the crowd, the excitement of the city officials as they worked all night, the spontaneous singing, the flamenco guitarist breaking into an acoustic version of Stairway to Heaven at 4am -- and I'd like to try to record my perspective for anyone interested.


We drove over to Cambridge last night around 11:00, deciding we'd at least see what was going on before deciding to head to Somerville City Hall this morning instead. Our first hint that it was something big was that Inman Street, which runs to one side of City Hall, was closed. We diverted through the maze of one-way streets to get to Mass Ave, and crawled down it for several minutes before a blaze of flash bulbs and tv lights slowly came into view.

The front lawn of City Hall was packed with thousands of people. Bright lights pinpointed two or three tv reporters mixed in with the crowd, but it looked mostly just like regular people, all enjoying themselves. There was a handful of signs, but mostly throngs of smiling, happy people standing around waiting.

The small Fred Phelps contingent was off to the right side of the street with their 'God Hates Fags' and 'God Crashed the Shuttle' signs. A cordon of police in riot gear stared them down. I was surprised there were so few protesters; in spite of the recent calls for peace and calm from the Catholic clergy, I half-expected their months of Chicken Little rhetoric would have prompted more people to turn out.

We slowly made our way past the crowd and into Central Square, where much to our surprise we found a legitmate non-resident parking space several blocks away, close to Manray and the Middle East Cafe. This side of Central Square was quiet as we walked back towards the crowds.

I'm always looking for good omens and synchronicty, and when we ran into the sculptor Gideon Weisz, whose triangular Mobius inspired the rings which Jade Moran is making for us, I really started to feel like this could be an amazing night. He wished us well.

We paused at 1369 for a cup of coffee. There was a line out the door, and we were surrounded by bubbly lesbians talking about friends and wedding plans. Later I regretted splitting a small instead of going for a larger dose of caffiene.

Coffee in hand, we pressed on towards the crowd, and quickly transitioned from figurative to literal pressing. In the time it had taken us to park the crowd had swelled into the street. The cops had closed Mass Ave starting at Prospect. We paused at the edge of the crowd trying to figure out what to do or where to go. I stood on my toes to look around. Intermittent cheers went up for no discernable reason. People stood around, facing city hall in small groups and in couples, talking animatedly, hugging, waiting, looking.

A sign poking up from the crowd saying "YAY" caught my eye. Some people had "Toto, we're not in Kansas, Welcome to Equality" signs for the Phelps folks, but the crowd had grown so large you couldn't tell if they were still there.

Aaron and I looked at each other, mouths open. Who are all these people? They're not all here to get married, right? Where do we go? Are these all straight people? This is incredible! We didn't speak, but we were clearly thinking the same thing.

I thought I caught a glimpse of a couple walking up the stairs before one enormous cheer, but I couldn't be sure. We edged closer to the steps, and I could suddenly see a line of cops in riot gear leading up to the main entrance. I turned to one of them and asked him if we were too late to get in for a license.

"I don't know," he said. "We're just keeping this area clear. You can't stand here."

"Do you know where people are going in?" I asked.

"Maybe around the side?" He pointed off to the right. This guy obviously knew nothing.

"Well, can I just walk up here?"

"I don't know." He wasn't unpleasant about it, but this obviously wasn't getting us anywhere.

At that point another cop walked up to people standing behind us and told them they had to clear a path. He started towards us, and Aaron grabbed me and pulled me back into the crowd.

"I think we can just walk up here," I told him. "Come on!"

Aaron grabbed my hand and we walked forward up the steps.

Off to my side someone said, "Look, here goes someone else!"

Suddenly a roar erupted all around us. Things began to move more slowly. I grabbed Aaron's hand tighter and started running forward up the steps. Everything was a blur. I lost his grip briefly as he stopped close to the entrance to accept a rose from someone in the crowd. I paused at the top of the steps, and turned to wait for him.

I've been in front of some large, happy, and cheering crowds before, but only on a stage -- never with a throng pressing in from all sides, with clapping hands outstretched, cameras flashing, and a deafening roar.

I stood there facing the crowd as Aaron walked towards me with a sparkle-encrusted yellow rose and a huge grin on his face. As he reached me, I put my hand around his waist and waved to the crowd. I tried to look at all the people, but my eyes couldn't focus.

We turned and walked into City Hall. My head spun. The lights seemed blinding after coming in from the street. A man in a tuxedo sat at a table and said something like "What are your intentions", through it was probably more like "Are you here to declare your intentions?" A reporter stood behind him pointing a microphone connected to a minidisc recorder at us. People and press thronged around.

I looked at Aaron. He shrugged.

"Um, we're here for a marriage license...?" I said.

He held out a ticket and a yellow information sheet and explained the process -- we'd wait inside and they'd begin processing applicants at midnight. The last three digits on our ticket were our place in line. 243. We were to proceed up the stairs to the right and wait for our number to be called.

We carefully picked our way up the steps through couples sitting on the stairs, standing in groups, officials threading their way through. We worked our way up to the top floor where there were some free stairs to sit on. People passed out wedding cake and coffee, and the noise of hundreds of excited people talking pulsed around us. And the heat. Singing echoed in from somewhere else in the building.

The crowd was largely female, and generally seemed to be 40ish. Some had children with them. Most people seemed dressed normally, with one or two costumes in the crowd, and a few suits.

From where we sat it was impossible to tell what was really going on. A roar went up before midnight, presumably as the first group of couples was led down to begin filling out paperwork. Another huge cheer went up as the first couple filed for their license just after midnight.

As the night wore on, cheers contiuned to erupt from outside. Aaron and I sampled the wedding cake, walked around, taked to the some of the other couples, and enjoyed the festive atmosphere. Groups of ten couples were led down to the basement from the city council chamber at intervals throughout the night. Everyone waiting cheered and clapped, and the next group of ten couples was called into the chamber.

Journalists wandered around interviewing and photographing people. Couples chatted, and passed information about what was happening.

Two am approached, and barely the 100th copule had been called. None of the people we talked to were sure what would happen -- would we be called back in the morning? I thought I had read something like that in the newspaper or on the Cambridge city website. But the minutes passed and the groups of couples kept passing through to the cheers of everyone remaining.

We wandered in to the council chamber gallery at close to 3am to watch the couples assemble. The mayor stood at the podium assembling the next group in line to his right, and the subsequent one to his left. A guitarist sat off to the side singing in spanish and playing along -- his voice and fingers in amazing condition for having kept it up all night.

Before taking a break he asked the crowd if they wanted to sing anything. Someone shouted "Goin' to the Chapel", and suddenly, the entire room broke out singing -- in key, and with harmony no less -- for two verses. Amazing! As a mediocre but passable singer, I'm always amazed when a group of people can sing together in key.

Looking down at the Mayor, it was clear that he was enjoying every minute of it, and that he intended to keep going until the last couple had signed their appliction.

We returned to the dwindling crowd waiting outside the chamber, sitting on tables and benches, talking and exchanging bits of info about the process with each other.

Couple 245, from Woburn, waited with their adopted son, who was obviously ecstatic to be up past his bedtime and in such an excited crowd. Later they told us about their "real" wedding three and a half years ago "complete with place settings."

Couple 240, a queer theory professor from Gainesville and her partner, chatted with a couple in the 230s. 265, we found out through the grapevine, was the highest number issued. A pair of lesbians from Boston in the 230s told us about their plans to get married next week after nine years together. A pair of men in the 250s (Paul McMahon and Ralph Hodgdon according to the New York Times) held a sign which said "Together for 49 years."

We cheered a few more passing groups and it was our turn to line up in the chamber. Couples 241 and 242 were missing, so we were at the front of our group. Aaron and I posed for a picture with the mayor.

Finally we were led downstairs, past a single clapping couple, and to another line. "This is like Dante's circles of hell," joked couple 245. But at this point the clerks had the process completely smoothed out and we were through the line and filling out paperwork in no time.

We presented our forms to a the next available clerk. She examined our bloodwork results, had us swear an oath, gave us a free membership to the YMCA(!), and gave us our receipt to pick up the license after the three day waiting period. The Mayor stopped by as we were finishing up and joked with the clerks about how they'd be starting back up again in a few hours.

"That couch upstairs is looking pretty good, isn't it?" he said [and I remember one of the female employees saying "Yeah, I know [Joan] here already has her afghan ready." - Aaron]

We paid our $15 and walked up the stairs to the exit. People shook our hands on the way out, and as we walked out the front door at 4:15am we were greeted by a small cheering crowd.

"Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!" they yelled as we got to the bottom of the nearly-deserted steps. We kissed, posed for a picture and drove home through the nearly deserted streets.

Today's the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, a fact not lost on SJC Chief Justice Margaret Marshall when she timed the release of her decision and its subsequent waiting period. The comparison of our experience this morning with that of black children walking into elementry schools under the protection of armed guards doesn't work, but our experience is an historic one nonetheless.

Our simple wedding plans for later this week have been fortified by the happiness of the thousands of people who joined us to celebrate last night and it's something I'll never forget.


Aaron writes:


I guess I should write about last night.

I like the strange unsettled peace of 5 o'clock in the morning in late Spring or early Summer, when the sky's just starting to get light and the birds are serenading the approaching sun, and almost all of human-kind is asleep, aside from the newspaper delivery-truck drivers and early-rising commuters and joggers. That's what I was thinking of as I tried to fall asleep this morning, adjusting the shades to blot out the light, pulling the curtains shut, and trying to shush the cats. Today might be the most historically and politically important day in the events of which I have participated, or will.

I've read a bunch of wire stories, and accounts in the Globe, Advocate, and sfgate.com about what's going on. None of them really gets across what was blowing my mind. None of them expresses how amazing it felt to be in Cambridge -- *the* place where this was all happening first, it, the only one, not Boston at 9AM, not Somerville, but 11:55 in Cambridge, the cheers as the crowd downstairs from us started counting down to midnight five or ten seconds ahead of time, and the exuberant, joyous, exalted scream that went on and on when the date changed; or the stamina and excitement of the lady wearing the hot pink capris and exciting multicolored pink-ish glasses, who continued parading us all downstairs, 265 couples in groups of twenty people at a time, from just after midnight till 12 couples after us at something like 4:10 in the morning. Everyone I saw, from milling, exhausted couples to the mayor to city council members to other city hall staff acted as though there were *nothing* they would rather be doing; I don't think there was.

I have a hard time gauging what my emotions were as we started running up the gauntlet -- the avenue that led from the sidewalk on Mass Ave. up to the front doors of City Hall -- to find that there were relatively few couples seeking licenses -- fewer than the thousand I might have expected -- but that there were about three thousand just *watching* -- a mass of people singing spontaneously, chanting, waving signs, all with their own little political agendas to defeat bush or proclaim love for gays or just be happy that we were getting what they had rights to -- a mass overfilling the lawn in front of City Hall, filling the sidewalk on both sides of Mass Ave, and stretching tendrils up and down several blocks, towards both Harvard and Central. As soon as Brian grabbed my hand and said let's give it a try, and started running, they all started cheering, clapping, screaming. I did not expect that.

I did not expect the woman who stopped me on the way up, thrusting a stem of yellow roses decorated with glitter at me as I struggled not to drop my camera and not to let go of Brian's hand. I recognized the ritual of her actions from press reports from San Francisco, thought "Oh, yeah, this," and managed to smile and say "Thanks!" I don't think I conveyed how touching and generous a gesture it was, and how thankful we were. We wore spontaneous smiles at the delight of hearing hundreds of people shout at our declaration of love, our running up. I didn't expect the Hyatt to have provided huge, glorious flowers and coffee and multiple wedding cakes and sparkling cider, which the caterers started distributing as they packed up at somewhere around 1:30. I haven't heard about the sense of synchronicity you get when you realize the $15 you have left in your pocket after spending $1.35 on a coffee is exactly what you need for the fee, and what would you have done if you had spent that $1.35 for a second coffee, or hadn't withdrawn an extra 20 on Saturday. I haven't read accounts of a dozen couples perched on the steps between the 2nd and 3rd floors of city hall, exhausted, each absorbed in his or her partner, chatting and pleasant but not here for mingling and meeting new people, all so tired, but also thrilled at realizing that maybe, even though we had gotten numbers above 200 from the tuxedoed man after running the gauntlet, we might just make history and get our license application before they shut down at who yet knew when in the morning, as each couple shared a bottle of sparkling cider, the last clean coffee cups having long ago disappeared, the highest numbers yet called still somewhere in the low 100s. We all ate the lovely cake, some with our fingers after the last forks ran out. Every couple carried at least one digital camera, and just about all of us popped out our cell phones to tell friends so close like family "Guess what I'm doing!!!" We milled, getting up to walk around, up one flight or down, checking out various video feeds and peeking into the city council chamber where 20 couples at a time lined up before proceeding downstairs to the paper processing line. I haven't read about no one seeming to know exactly what was going on, of hearing cheers and snippetts of song, but not seeing where they're coming from or what they mean -- just feeling *zing* excited, anticipating. I haven't read about us standing in the gallery above the chamber, next to a few exhausted people trying to catch some sleep in the pews, next to the old lesbians with their arms around one another, those of us awake rapt and eventually singing with the spontaneous eruptions, started by the Spanish guitarist and one excited and super-energetic lesbian sitting watching and waiting, of "Goin' to the Chapel" and "I'm Getting Married in the Morning." Who knew that so many lesbians knew all the words to a song from an Audrey Hepburn movie. Who knew there were so many lesbians! A lot of men, certainly, including the couple with the "49 years together!" sign, the 49 wrapped in a jaggy flamey sun shape, but so many women, and some so old! One lady was holding forth to a younger couple about how much fun it was in the early 60s in Ogunquit, as I thought how amazing and underground that must have been.

I haven't read about the processions hot pink pants lady led again and again, leading the now-exultant couples; about the young lesbians who looked as though they might be in high school, the ones who caught your eye from the side so for a moment you thought they were very well-groomed twinks; the middle-aged black couple, one with the great dreds; the one holding her nursing child with her left hand while she held her wife's -- soon to be fully legal wife's -- with her right as they marched downstairs to the final wait. I haven't read about the three or so 12-year-olds different couples brought with them to witness this moment in history, ecstatic at being up so late, so naughty, with full approval, with no one worrying them to stay close lest they meet a stranger, everything so warm and wholesome, everyone so quietly happy -- except the gallery of young women sitting on a bench outside the chambers who dutifully cheered *every* time pink pants started processing by again. It's so odd to meet politicians who, like the Cambridge mayor, are absolutely thrilled to grandstand in favor of gay rights, encouraging us to pose with them for our picture, as we're all tired and punchy, everyone punning and merry, the guitarist cracking jokes and keeping up the singing for hours, starting Stairway to Heaven just before our group starts downstairs, with me and Brian at the head of the line, since 241 and 242 didn't show, a while after playing stuff from Buena Vista Social Club. Then downstairs, from the dark italianate wood, into the bright white plaster basement we went, listening to instructions, filling out our forms, Brian mis-writing his mother's maiden name instead of her middle name, then getting me to surreptitiously snap the picture of the clerk who took our oath at 4:12AM, me taking another hand-stretched picture of the two of us, this one where we absolutely radiate, so happy now we're sure it's really happening to us, and so fast, too! We haven't had to wait 49 years, only four. It seems petty of us to even be in line ahead of any of these older ladies and gentlemen, who've been through so much. We're thrilled, but lest we forget that this is still America, the couple of young out-of-town lesbians we sit opposite while filling out our paperwork, who noticed we were from Somerville, and asked us whether we might consider driving them back to their friends' outside Davis, tells us after we're through, when we're upstairs excited about leaving the building for the first time in five hours, that they didn't make it. They made the mistake of telling the truth -- that they were from Florida and not thinking of moving -- and weren't eligible to receive a license in Cambridge. We hoped they'd try Somerville, which we hear isn't asking. We hope now that they did, and that all was well, since it's so sad that they'd wait so long, on a spur-of-the-moment decision, without anything to show for it except the witnessing of history and the enormous happy kharma of it all. I certainly haven't read about the wonder of walking outside after all this, thrilled and a little overwhelmed and surrealized, at a quarter past four on a Monday morning, to see that there were still maybe a dozen people lining the gauntlet, screaming and cheering as we walked out, them flashing pictures of us, me holding the camera high and getting them, stepping down and hearing the chants "Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!," grabbing Brian and kissing him sloppily, trying not to fall down the steps, getting to the bottom to watch another couple do exactly the same thing and kiss in the same place, in the same unsteady tripping but delirious way, knowing how amazing this will all seem in the daylight, and sad that the lesbian couple from Gainesville isn't celebrating quite the same way, hoping to try again tomorrow in Somerville, and meanwhile hanging back so as not to deflect attention from us.

There are times when I think people are capable of not being so bad after all -- times when it's impossible to keep the grin from spreading, and you wonder if you're really worthy of all this spontaneous stranger-loving goodwill, and maybe they should save it for the elderly ladies who must've been through so much more. I feel like a kid -- a 28-year-old who's lucky and ahead of the game, even though my straight peers all seem already married and property-owning, but they're in such a different world, these guys are closer, really, and even the straight cheerleaders can't quite know what it's about, though they're intoxicated by it all, too. I love you, Brian. I'm happy we had such an event instead of the usual boring trip to the city clerk's office. I'm so happy we can get married this week, though I still can't quite believe it, and probably won't until it's a few weeks behind us. There are times when it all seems alright, deliciously sweet and good and strange, when the world is just surreal in a good way, and the difference between me and you and us and them and that kid over there becomes impossible to wrap my brain around, and it's easier to just be happy for everything, as you realize that lightness is the sky just before dawn, and isn't that a lark singing? Some radiant songbird singing as we slip into sleep.
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