Provincetown Calendar of Events: What, When, Where A picture is worth a thousand words...
May 17, 2004 and May 17, 2005
May 17, 2004 - on the footsteps of Provincetown Town Hall
Massachusetts became the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage.
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May 17, 2005 First Anniversary Celebration
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Provincetown celebrates 10 years of gay marriage
When a town sheds collective tears they are typically due to tragedy, but on May 17, 2004, Provincetown wept tears of joy — tears that haven't stopped coming.
PROVINCETOWN -- When a town sheds collective tears they are typically due to tragedy, but on May 17, 2004, Provincetown wept tears of joy — tears that haven't stopped coming.
Doug Johnstone's face reddens and his eyes fill as he talks about the day Massachusetts became the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage.
"These are happy tears. I can't believe after 10 years it still has that effect," he says. "I think why it still affects me is … it was very personal to me as an issue, which I didn't realize."
As a white man in America, Johnstone says he didn't consciously feel discriminated against until November 2003, when the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the arguments against same-sex marriage "failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples."
When that happened, a cloud lifted and Johnstone suddenly realized he finally felt equal. He and partner Ed Terrill, who have been together since 1979, suddenly realized that their relationship could be recognized, which would allow them the legal rights that come with it.
Johnstone takes on Romney
Other same-sex couples around the state, the country and the world apparently had similar thoughts. Johnstone had been town clerk for less than six months when he and an assistant waded through hundreds of phone and e-mail inquiries daily from those who wanted to know how they could legitimize their relationships come May 17. Meanwhile, Gov. Mitt Romney flaunted an arcane law from 1913 that stated that people could not be married in Massachusetts if the marriage would not be recognized in their own state — unless it was their intention to move here.
"If they choose to break the law, we will take appropriate enforcement action," Romney reportedly said.
"Romney was latching onto anything he could to prevent [same-sex marriage]," Johnstone says, but added that enacting the 1913 law would have created an illegal two-tiered system. "It struck all of us as totally contrary to the Supreme Court ruling."
State Rep. Sarah Peake, who was a Provincetown selectman at that time, said that Johnstone wanted to interpret the "intention" of living in Massachusetts as broadly as possible — with no moving date required — and the board agreed that he should.
"Doug was really the visionary and the one who was going out on the limb for this," Peake says. "Mitt Romney, right up until the end, seemed as though he was going to make every effort to stop the issuance of marriage licenses on the 17th."
Though the state provided legal threats rather than guidance, Johnstone said that the Provincetown Board of Selectmen took the lead. Then-selectmen Cheryl Andrews, Mary-Jo Avellar, Michele Couture, Richard Olson and Peake defied the governor and unanimously ruled that marriage licenses would be issued to everyone — regardless of their place of residency.
"The threats were big. There were threats that we could be arrested or sued individually," Andrews says. "I remember [Johnstone] crying then. … That's when I realized that we were a group of five and he was alone. … I said, 'You know this is huge and we won't let them do anything to you.'"
The selectmen set up a legal fund to receive donations, in which a gift of $10,000 was anonymously received.
"Legal counsel was called down here quite a bit as we approached May to listen to our desires and review the law," Andrews says, adding that town counsel told the board issuing to out-of-state couples was their choice.
"[The selectmen] did take a leadership stand on what this meant to all of us," Johnstone says. "I can't stress enough what it meant to me."
And yet by signing marriage licenses to out-of-state couples that had no intention of living here, he was most at risk. Johnstone says he deputized Avellar so that "if I get arrested we're not going to stop [issuing marriage licenses]."
Twelve other cities and towns in the state followed Provincetown's example, Johnstone says.
"We were lucky that Doug came in when he did. He was a great spokesperson for the town," Andrews says.
But, at that time, the town was well represented by everyone. Andrews and Avellar appeared on New England Cable News to defend their decision.
"I knew it was important because Cheryl was wearing lipstick," Johnstone says.
Two weeks back, Andrews watched a DVD of the interview in her dental office.
"If you catch on at all you notice that Mary-Jo does all the talking and I just sit there and grin … total stage fright. Thank god Mary-Jo had no problem whatsoever and carried that day," Andrews says.
Avellar thinks back a decade to the decision that she and the others made.
"I would have been willing to go to jail myself. It's just so ridiculous that people are still in opposition of it," she says. "It's just like, it's legal so do it. It was the right thing to do."
Cascading emotions & marriage licenses
On May 17, 2004, with the help of 75 volunteers, 154 marriage licenses were issued in Provincetown, 29 percent to out-of-state couples. That year, a total of 873 licenses were issued, 848 to same-sex couples. (From January through April of that year, before same-sex marriage was legal, only three marriage licenses were returned.)
"I feel like we led the way for gay marriage legalization in the rest of the  states that now have it," Couture says.
While same-sex marriage licenses were quickly being issued, the Romney administration threatened to stop the whole thing. Peake, who pulled a license that day and was to be married to long-time partner Lynn Mogell on May 22, says that her brother called to ask if the wedding was still on. The caterer had been paid, she told him, and the champagne was chilling and there would at least be a party. Turned out Romney didn't do anything and the wedding took place. Peake says, indeed, it "absolutely" feels different to be married.
"There's no question about it. There are emotional differences, there are financial differences," she says, adding that introducing Mogell as her wife rather than partner seems to deepen people's understanding of their commitment.
Andrews never thought she'd marry, but Romney's hollow threats spurred her and girlfriend Jennifer Germack to take the plunge on May 20, 2004, at the Cape End Manor, the town-owned nursing home, with Andrews' father and other family by their side.
"This is our gift to the issue because we know we want to be together," she says. "We've been celebrating ever since."
In the public eye
While Provincetown celebrated on May 17, 2004, the rest of the nation was asking questions. Network television crew lined Ryder Street outside of Town Hall. Andrews says she got to see Germack carry her over the threshold of Provincetown Town Hall on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
"It was astounding how big it was," she says.
"That was just too much fun. I don't ever remember having so much fun in my whole life," Avellar says. "It was just so joyful — joyful is the word I'd have to say."
Johnstone says Town Hall was packed with couples, but because so many people — gay and straight — volunteered to help process marriage licenses, no one had to wait. By the afternoon there was a lull, and Johnstone and Terrill, who was one of those volunteers that day, took a break to file their own license. By the end of June, Romney had seemingly lost his bid to stop the tide, Johnstone was never arrested and he and Terrill were legally married.
"It was one of those things that was never going to happen," Johnstone says. "I got to be a June bride after all."
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