Same-sex couples reflect on how their lives changed 20 years after marriage was first legalized

For Gina Nortonsmith, the most memorable moment from her wedding day was not walking down the aisle, but rather, a conversation she shared with her two sons. “You came out as Nortonsmith. We had to earn it,” she recalls telling her children on May 17, 2004. The roots of her family had been in the making for nearly 15 years, but Heidi Norton and Gina Smith, as they were then-known, were unable to marry until the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s (SJC) 4-3 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage was officially in motion. The women were two of the fourteen plaintiffs in .

The decision, announced on Nov. 18, 2003, was monumental. “We were all on entirely new ground here. No state in the nation had done this before,” Mary Bonauto, the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) attorney behind Goodridge tells TIME. It took more than 900 days after the case’s initial filing for plaintiffs to learn that they won, and the SJC gave the legislature half a year until the decision went into effect.

Problems were quick to manifest. Within , then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called for changes to the state’s constitution to bar the ruling from going through. Former President George W. Bush also same-sex marriage, saying he was “troubled” by the landmark decision, and calling for a constitutional amendment in his 2004 State of the Union address. Multiple lawsuits were filed between November 2003 and May 2004, with the last case against Goodridge settled just three days prior to May 17, the day the SJC had declared same-sex couples could apply for a marriage license. “The issue was viewed as toxic to Democrats and an opportunity to attack by Republicans,” said Marc Solomon, one of the key political strategists of the marriage equality movement. “It was incredibly intense.”

Many recollect different memories of that day. Some speak of the sharpshooters on roofs across Boston, and increased police presence meant to protect them. Most mention being unaware of what was happening around them outside of the great fanfare and support they felt. “As soon as I sat down in the pew, I just couldn’t repress the tears,” says Bonauto. “I think it was tears of relief and joy.”

While many young people have grown up in a country that on its face, seems much more LGBTQ+-friendly, acceptance is still fairly recent. It took the U.S. 14 years to catch up to the Netherlands—the first country to legalize same-sex marriage—through the 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges.

Seventy-one percent of Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal, according to the released in 2023. That rate of approval is the highest Gallup has recorded since 1996, when just over 1 in 4 Americans approved. Part of that pivot might be due to the fact that an increasing number of Americans aged 18 to 29 .

Still, many advocates express fear that the constitutional right to same-sex marriage could be in danger, with referencing the in his concurring opinion.

“When I think about the possibility of Obergefell being overturned, I want to say it would be outrageous because the ruling is based on mainstream law, under equal protection and due process,” says Bonauto, who also argued Obergefell. “Anything is possible. I’m going to bet on it not being reversed. The minute I say that, I have to say not for a second do I think we should be complacent.”

Below are the love and wedding stories of couples who legally married in Massachusetts, thanks to Goodridge, and the challenges that came before then.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Mike Horgan and Ed Balmelli, both 64, were plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Dept. Public Health. They met at a Christmas party in Lowell, Mass. in 1994 and got married on May 17, 2004.

Mike: We knew that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts was about to announce their decision. So, at that time, you would go to your computer and bring up a browser and keep hitting refresh every morning to see if the Supreme Judicial Court had decided. And when they did, we didn’t really know what to do at that point. We got dressed, put our suits on, and went downtown to GLAD’s office. On the street, we were jumping up and down, doing high fives. We just couldn’t believe that the case was decided.

Governor Romney was not happy about this. He was trying to do everything he could, from his viewpoint, to stop this. We also had a civil union in Vermont in 2000. One of the things that the administration was thinking of doing was making people who had civil unions dissolve them, so that would have taken some time. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to get married on May 17, 2004. Actually, we only had about two or three weeks to plan the wedding by the time we found out that they had dropped that notion of making people with civil unions dissolve them.

Ed: On the day of our wedding, we were [one of] three [plaintiff] couples in Boston that got married that first day. We had all these news cameras and media talking to us and whatnot. And I think they thought that maybe one of us was going to show up in a dress or something because when they saw it all happening, they saw our parents there, our siblings, and the minister— and they were kind of, almost bored. It’s like, ‘why is this news? It’s just a wedding.’ And so that was kind of like an Aha! moment. It was kind of special.

Now, it’s so nice that people have grown up with [it] being legal all this time. It used to be anytime there’s anything in the news about same-sex marriage, they would call one of us seven couples.

Linda and Gloria Bailey-Davies were plaintiffs in Goodridge. The couple, ages 78 and 83, have been together for 53 years. The couple had a legal wedding on May 17, 2004, followed by a church wedding two months later in July.

Gloria: We got involved [with Goodridge] because Linda had been facing some health challenges and we became aware that, legally, we had no relationship at all even though we had been together for 33 years. And no one could really guarantee us that I could be there with her because I wasn’t her legal next of kin, so that frightened us enough.

Linda: We also wanted to get married. We never in a million years thought we would be able to be married when we first got together. [That] wasn’t even a question. The question was, are we lesbians? That was hard enough to come to grips with back in those days, coming out to ourselves and each other. But then the concept of maybe being able to be married was just over the top for us. But we decided, if there was any chance, we’d like to help with the cause.

Gloria would not say that she would marry me all that whole two-and-a-half years [that the case was in limbo]. I kept asking. She said, ‘Don’t ask me until it’s legal.’ So on the day we were riding up to Boston to hear the decision, it came out over the radio that we had won the case and Gloria just burst into tears, and she’s not a big crier. And I had to say, ‘you have to stop crying. I want to ask you, will you marry me?’

Gloria: Finally, it was a legal question that I could answer, and I happily said, ‘Of course.’

Marriage was a very different process. I mean, people say, ‘Well, you’ve been together all those years, did it change?’ It changed for me, unbelievably, because I felt like we were finally able to hold our heads up high and be in the world and be just like everybody else.

Heidi and Gina Nortonsmith, both 59, were plaintiffs in Goodridge. They met in 1990 at a National Lesbian and Gay Law Association gathering in Atlanta. They had a commitment ceremony in 1993, before getting legally married on May 17, 2004. The couple says that the main reason they joined the lawsuit was to protect their family.

Gina: We already had our oldest son, and had been working with our lawyer to draw whatever legal papers we could to show that we were family, and that if something happened to Heidi,