Cronin: New York's license to celebrate

A display at a wedding shop in Provincetown, A display at a wedding shop in Provincetown, Mass., in May 2004 when same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts Photo Credit: AP

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Louie Cronin, of Jamaica Plain, Mass., is a former writer and producer for NPR's "Car Talk."

Sunday is the first day that gay marriage will be legal in New York. Gay couples are getting engaged; Broadway is throwing an onstage gay wedding; wedding planners are booking well into next year.

Not everybody is happy about it though. The clerk of the upstate town of Barker resigned, saying it is against her religious beliefs to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Some religious leaders have forecast the end of monogamy.

But if what happened seven years ago in my hometown of Cambridge, Mass., is any indication, Sunday won't mark the end of anything, but the beginning of a great, historical moment for New York.

At one minute past midnight on May 17, 2004, the city of Cambridge issued the first license for same-sex marriage in the United States. I was lucky enough to be there -- not getting married, but cheering on my friends, Linda and Jenny, who were.

The line of couples applying for marriage licenses snaked out of City Hall and onto the streets. The air was festive -- a cross between Mardi Gras, the Fourth of July and Carnivale. We watched armored riot police trot by on foot. Everyone was nervous, not quite believing it was going to happen.

My friends hadn't planned a reception, ordered a cake, or chosen wedding rings. They were worried there might be some last-minute foul-up.

Thousands of well-wishers lined the streets and formed an impromptu reception line. I felt like royalty or a celebrity, with the flashing camera bulbs, the cheering and clapping. We inched toward the ornate arched doorway of City Hall.

Previously I had associated this building with more bureaucratic, unpleasant, things: parking tickets, mumps inoculations, political grandstanding. But on that night, I saw the beauty of the H.H. Richardson stone building. It was magical, lit from within.

Two elderly men, one of whom walked with difficulty, held signs saying they had been together for 50 years. If they were straight, they'd be celebrating their 50th anniversary and everyone would be asking how they did it. Across the street, in a cordoned-off area dubbed "The First Amendment Zone," opponents of same-sex marriage held signs and shouted slogans -- but there too few of them to be heard amid all the cheering, clapping and singing.

The closer we got to the door, the louder the cheering grew. People threw rice, Mardi Gras beads, and roses. They sang "Going to the Chapel." A city official announced from the top of the stairs, "Couples only beyond this point." I figured it was time for me to go. "No, stay," Jenny said. "We'll pretend you're our daughter. Everyone knows gay couples have to adopt older children." I was 52; they were 49 and 33.

No one stopped me at the door. Perhaps it was too hard to figure which of us were the brides, but I suspect it had more to do with the contagious, free-ranging joy. Inside we were greeted by tuxedo-clad city officials. The staircases were wrapped in white ribbon and bunting. Music played.

We made our way up the stairs to the City Council Chambers. At some point there was wedding cake and speeches. Finally, at 3 or 4 in the morning, Linda and Jenny got their application for a license. They kissed; I took a picture. I've never been so proud of my hometown.

Seven years later, gay marriage is not exactly old hat in Massachusetts. But neither is it revolutionary. I meet younger gay people who take it for granted.

They make plans to wed, buy a house, start a family, as if it had always been this way. Two weeks ago Linda and Jenny welcomed their daughter, Zoe, into the world. She is perfect in every way. I no longer play the adopted daughter. Now I play the devoted aunt.

Sunday marks an important turning point in the march toward marriage equality. And if the small town of Cambridge, Mass., could pull off such a memorable celebration, I can't wait to see what New York does. I predict it's going to be fabulous.

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