05/17/2014 09:24 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

10 Years of Marriage Equality

Nearly every Monday evening I join my colleagues on the Cambridge City Council for our weekly council meeting, during which we discuss and deliberate upon a host of issues that impact our community. We address matters of immediate concern, as well as issues that will shape how our city evolves over the coming decades. No matter what issue is before us, though, whenever I enter the historic Sullivan Chamber for meetings, I am instantly reminded of an event that took place 10 years ago. It was an event of historical importance, when I was privileged to serve as an elected representative in Cambridge as my city took a momentous step forward -- a step that continues to reverberate across the entire nation.

That step occurred during the electric, amazing night of Sunday, May 16, 2004. On that crisp evening, crowds began to swell on the front lawn of City Hall, spilling out into side streets and onto Massachusetts Avenue, as a new chapter in American history was about to be written. In just a few short hours, at the stroke of midnight, city staff would throw open the front doors, let people into the building, and begin to issue the very first same-sex marriage licenses in this nation's history. And with the issuance of those first documents, some painful, needless, artificial barriers were going to begin to dissipate. In the first few minutes after midnight on May 17, we all gathered here -- gay and straight, black and white, young and old -- and we all took that momentous first step together.

Even writing these words years later, I am brought right back to that evening, vividly remembering the excitement and the exhilaration we all felt while counting down the minutes until midnight. Everybody knew this would be a night that none of us would ever forget. People were excitedly rattling off some of the earlier milestones in this country's evolution: the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the protest marches led by Dr. King in the 1950s and '60s, the Stonewall riots in 1969, the women's liberation movement in the 1970s. Each of these events epitomized the incremental progress that has brought this country that much closer to honoring its founding ideal that all its citizens would be considered equal. After this evening we knew that May 17, 2004, would join that list of milestones.

Cambridge had long been working toward this moment, particularly since the previous November, when Goodrich v. Department of Public Health had legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, effective May 17, 2004. As a community that prides itself on its inclusionary nature and progressive values, we actively sought to find a way to ensure that our City Hall would be open to issue same-sex marriage licenses at the first possible moment. Beyond wanting to be able to claim that honor, my colleagues and I were very conscious of the blood, sweat, and tears that had led to this momentous occasion; we understood that there were untold numbers of LGBT individuals who had given life and limb over many generations to bring us to the point where this matter could actually be achieved. We understood just how dangerous it still was, in many parts of the country, to live one's life as an openly gay person. For those reasons, May 17, 2004, was not merely going to be a celebration; it was going to be a line of demarcation, and, we hoped, a glimpse into the future.

I am incredibly proud of the fact that Cambridge made the decision to issue marriage licenses in the first moments of May 17, 2004. The cheering crowds on the front lawn still echo through the years, and we cheered because we recognized that, once again, this country was starting to reject the "separate but equal" notion of tiered citizenship. In the decade since that incredible night, the spirit of tolerance and equality has been slowly, steadily sweeping over this nation, year by year, region by region. As of today, 16 states have followed Massachusetts' lead. Every few months, another encouraging headline appears, and we're reminded that this is a country that is capable of reflection, correction, and redemption.

Massachusetts is proud to have been the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage, and deservedly so. And yet we must remember that it took this country 228 years just to get that far. Yes, 228 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, 141 years after the country abolished slavery, 84 years after women won the right to vote, and 40 years after the Civil Rights Act codified the rights of African Americans, it still took until 2004 for even one state to legalize same-sex marriage. Yet all great movements must have their starting point, and we must recognize that this continues to be an ongoing process. There will continue to be setbacks, grief, and heartache along the way, yet the work must always continue until all 50 states have joined Massachusetts in bestowing true equality upon all their citizens. On this 10-year anniversary of marriage equality, we pause to celebrate that first, necessary step that will show us all the way forward.

E. Denise Simmons is a seven-term Cambridge City Councilor. In 2008 she became the nation's first black, openly lesbian mayor.