BOSTON — When Michele Frost and Mary Helen Walker enrolled their 3-year-old daughter, Shea, in preschool, it required a change in the school application form. But it was no big deal: Officials simply substituted the words "mother" and "father" with "Parent 1" and "Parent 2."
When they got their marriage license, city employees behind the counter were more interested in the child than they were in questioning the two lesbians about their relationship.
"We have been greeted so warmly," said Frost, 42, who moved three years ago from Chicago to Quincy, Mass., just south of Boston. "We've just had a great experience."
Nearly five years after the state's Supreme Court ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, the vitriolic battle that brought international attention and apocalyptic fears to Massachusetts is all but dead. Since the first marriages on May 17, 2004, more than 11,000 couples have tied the knot. They're busy mowing lawns and hauling kids to soccer practice, and the sky has not fallen.
Polls have shown consistent public support for gay couples. And with overwhelming support for gay marriage in the state legislature — the last effort to put it on the ballot failed 151-45 — the opposition has, for the most part, packed its bags and gone home.
"The biggest surprise about the whole thing is that there really has been no surprise," Republican state Rep. Paul Loscocco said. "It's been fairly much a nonevent."
While same-sex marriage is firmly entrenched in Massachusetts, gay activists in the Bay State say the future of the movement nationally could depend on what happens in California. In May, the California Supreme Court made the state the second to legalize gay marriage. But voters will get the final say in November, when they decide whether to back Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage. A Field Poll released last month showed that 51 percent of likely voters would oppose the initiative, while 42 percent would support it.
"As goes California, so goes the rest of country," said Joyce Kauffman, a lawyer in nearby Cambridge who's active in promoting gay and lesbian issues.
As Californians prepare to vote, Loscocco is advising them to keep their minds open. He certainly did. When the Massachusetts court made its decision in November 2003, Loscocco railed against it as an act of judicial tyranny. Now he calls gay marriage an opportunity "for people to come out of the shadows," a bold experiment that's consistent with America's great laboratory of ideas.
Sitting next to a framed photograph of Ronald Reagan in his state office, he suggested that even the Gipper might back gay marriage today.
"He was certainly a hero of mine, and I think that he was always a fair and open-minded person," said Loscocco, adding that his change of heart is consistent with a change in attitudes among his constituents. Five years ago, he said, 70 percent of those who weighed in on gay marriage opposed it, and now 70 percent support it. Among younger voters in his district, support is closer to 90 percent, he said.
Kauffman said the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and California represented "an amazing advance in the law" and signaled "a sea change of attitudes toward the gay community." She predicted that more states will follow suit.
Not only has much of the controversy faded in Massachusetts, but gay marriage also is regarded now as a big tourist draw, and the state is making it clear that it wants to compete with California for wedding business.
Gay activist Marc Solomon, whose sunny office overlooks the gold-domed statehouse on tony Beacon Hill, said it was a loud wake-up call for Massachusetts when California legalized gay marriage. With California going further than Massachusetts, allowing out-of-state couples to marry legally in the state, Solomon and his backers immediately wanted to repeal a 1913 law that banned such marriages.
That happened July 31, when Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, whose 18-year-old daughter publicly announced in June that she's a lesbian, signed off on the repeal. State officials acted after a study concluded that allowing out-of-state couples to marry in Massachusetts would draw thousands of gays and lesbians to the state, creating 330 jobs and boosting the economy by $111 million.
The Massachusetts Family Institute opposed the move, with its president saying that state legislators suffered from "gay marriage envy" after California legalized it. The institute has been among the most vocal critics, along with the Archdiocese of Boston, which said gay marriage "threatened the oldest and most foundational of human institutions." In 2004, even Pope John Paul II joined the debate, voicing his opposition.
When legislators were debating the expansion of gay marriage last month, four Roman Catholic bishops in Massachusetts issued a statement saying that marriage "is a faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman joined in an intimate community of love and life."
Edward Saunders, the executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, said the group had been disappointed with state legislators when it came to same-sex marriage but that opponents weren't throwing in the towel. He said it would make little sense to try to get a gay-marriage ban on the ballot this year after losing the fight in 2007.
"The legislators in Massachusetts refuse to let the people have a say on this issue. . . . It's futile to try and go back to the legislature until the makeup of the legislature changes," Saunders said.
Gay activist Solomon, the executive director of MassEquality, said the church lost influence with the Catholic-dominated legislature because of the widely publicized sex scandal involving priests.
"They've run into problems that have lessened their credibility in matters of sex and sexuality," Solomon said. He thinks that the emotional debate is largely over. "People have really moved on here."
Frost, an online marketer, said Massachusetts' gay marriage law was "the tipping point" when she and her 39-year-old wife, an assistant women's basketball coach, decided to move to the state. She said they planned to stay in Massachusetts, knowing that they'd lose many of their rights as a married couple as soon as they crossed the state line.
Thirty-nine states have passed laws defining marriage as an act between a man and a woman. As a result, gays and lesbians don't have the same rights that heterosexual couples are afforded in those states, such as visiting a spouse in a hospital or making health-care decisions.
In addition, Congress has passed a Defense of Marriage law, which forbids federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages. While gay state employees in Massachusetts can put their spouses on their health insurance plans, gay federal employees who live in the state cannot.
Kauffman said the legalization of gay marriage was the culmination of decades of hard work by activists. With Massachusetts and California leading the way, the rest of the nation will be forced to confront a basic question, she said.
"Are we going to treat everyone equally or not?" she asked. "It's a big question. And I think that the moral tenor of our society rests on the answer. I really do, because you can't treat some people as if they're second-class citizens and call yourself a true democracy."