On May 17, 2004, gay couples began exchanging marriage vows in Massachusetts, marking the first time a state has granted gays and lesbians the right to marry in the United States. The first couple to receive marriage paperwork was Marcia Hams, 56, and her partner, Susan Shepherd, 52, of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nevertheless, out-of-state gay couples are not allowed to marry in Massachusetts if the union would be illegal in their home state, though that ruling is expected to be challenged. The legality of those marriages are in question, and whether other states will recognize those marriages is an even bigger question – under the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, states do not have to honor same sex marriages performed in other states. In New York, the state attorney general has stated that same sex marriages are illegal under the state constitution; however, the attorney general has also stated that marriages performed in other states have to be recognized by the state of New York.
Due to the same-sex marriages, in Massachusetts at least, married couples are entitled to hundreds of rights under state law. But federal rights are not available to gay married couples because federal law defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Though under current law, persons of the same sex cannot marry outside of Massachusetts, in California same-sex couples can register for domestic partnerships, in Hawaii, same-sex couples can register as partnerships, and in Vermont, same-sex couples can enter into civil unions.
The U.S. House is currently considering a constitutional ban on gay marriage, which President Bush has said he would support. Canadian courts in Ontario and British Columbia recently legalized gay marriage, leading to hundreds of same-sex ceremonies. Belgium and the Netherlands also have legalized gay marriage. The Massachusetts Congress also expects to put a vote to a state Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2006.