BOSTON – Since the highest court in Massachusetts (search) declared that the state constitution guarantees gays the right to marry, it's the intangible joys — not the material benefits — that newlyweds say they savor.
While marriage entitles gay couples to state financial protections and familial rights, many instead talk about a feeling of acceptance.
"I've been called 'Mrs.,"' said Gail Leondar-Wright, who married Betsy, her partner of 13 years, on May 23. "None of us ever thought we would be called a 'Mrs."'
Rod and Lindel Hart revel in the simple act of checking off the "married" box on applications, even on federal forms that do not recognize their union.
"I will never, ever check the 'single' box again," said Rod, 31, of Greenfield.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (search) made the state the first to sanction same-sex marriages a year ago Thursday, and the aftershocks are evident in the daily lives of the thousands of couples who took vows they once didn't believe possible.
The effects also were evident after this year's elections, when 11 states pushed through constitutional amendments banning gay marriage (search), joining six others that had done so earlier. President Bush has promised to make a federal anti-gay marriage amendment a priority of his second term.
Massachusetts is also working on a new ban that would conform with the court's ruling by allowing civil unions. It won lawmakers' approval this year, but must be approved in a consecutive session before it's submitted to voters in 2006.
According to an Associated Press review of wedding certificates publicly recorded with the state since May 17, when the court decision took effect, at least 2,980 certificates have been filed by same-sex couples.
During the first months of same-sex weddings, Boston was the gay marriage capital, with 407 couples exchanging vows. Northampton, a gay-friendly community about 100 miles west of Boston, was second with 99 and Cambridge, Boston's liberal neighbor, was third with 92.
But same-sex marriage was not limited to the state's large cities or gay enclaves. Certificates were filed by same-sex couples in 290 of the state's 351 cities and towns, including two couples came from Tolland (pop. 426), in western Massachusetts.
The numbers reflect the marriages that have been publicly recorded with the state since May 17 — not the total that have taken place since then.
Opponents say the long-term effects of same-sex marriage will not be evident until today's children become adults.
"Many of us have said that the ramifications of these decisions won't be known for a decade or two, when we can see the impact on children who are taught that either a mom is not necessary or a dad is not necessary," said Ron Crews, the lead crusader against gay marriage in Massachusetts, who unsuccessfully ran for congress this fall.
Other foes say public school teachers who support gay rights now feel more free to impose their beliefs on students.
"This is affecting me immediately because my children are in conflict. It's putting my children in turmoil," said Kris Mineau, leader of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute. "I've always argued that from May 17 onward, my heterosexual marriage was no longer unique, no longer a standard for the culture, and that's an affront to me and it grieves me."
In April 2001, seven gay and lesbian couples who were denied marriage licenses in Massachusetts filed suit challenging the state's gay marriage ban. Two and a half years later, a deeply divided Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found there was "no rational reason" for such a ban under the state's constitution and ordered the state to start allowing gays to marry six months later.
"The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals," wrote Chief Justice Margaret Marshall. "It forbids the creation of second-class citizens."
Marshall's words are routinely read during same-sex wedding ceremonies, and the state has become a haven for gay couples and their supporters.
"It feels good that there's somewhere in the United States where it's not a big deal," said Brenda Henson, 59, of Centreville, Miss., who married Wanda, her partner of 20 years, earlier this year in Massachusetts.
Her home state was one of 11 that voted against gay marriage on Nov. 2, ensuring that her marriage will remain little more than a piece of paper for the time being.
"I'd really love to live in Massachusetts," Henson said. "They welcomed us with open arms."