'It was a new experience for us'
By Joanna Weiss - Globe Staff
Boston Globe
Friday, May 18, 2004

BELCHERTOWN -- Behind a chest-high counter in an aging town hall, an epochal shift in the institution of marriage was swept in by an assistant town clerk with a sheaf of photocopied forms.

Colleen Toothill-Berte hadn't expected to help make history, but her boss was overseeing a local election, so it fell to her to take the town's first four marriage applications from same-sex couples. In her office in a quiet stretch of Belchertown, beside a white chapel and a liquor store, she smiled broadly at a lesbian couple with tattoos and multiple earrings, grappling with her own evolving feelings.

"The couples that have come in have been cute," she said. "They're so excited about it. I had no idea what to expect."

As the world's attention focused on Cambridge and Boston, on protests and tears and vows, gay marriage arrived in the 351 cities and towns of Massachusetts yesterday morning in the most routine of ways: the act of filling out paperwork and filing it away.

In Somerville, where gay couples were greeted by red roses and pastries as they entered City Hall, some customers arrived unaware that anything unusual might be happening. At one window in the clerk's office, same-sex couples faced queries about their wedding plans; at the next, a clerk asked a middle-aged man about rabies shots for his mother's dog, Susie.

And in Salem, as Gary Halteman and Robert Murch Jr., both 30, exchanged marriage vows on the steps of the granite City Hall, a half-dozen locals squeezed by to get municipal business done inside.

Some passersby couldn't help but take notice, particularly when the moment turned emotional. A motorist passing by Halteman and Murch's wedding honked his horn. Janine Wuschke, 27, of Salem, watched the service from the sidewalk with a cell phone to her ear, telling her sister about the unexpected event.

"This is great," she said into the phone. "This is fantastic."

In a few scattered places -- Northampton, Somerville, Worcester, Provincetown -- throngs of gay couples met with the same sort of joyous celebration that Cambridge saw on Sunday night, when it opened its City Hall for the first applications: rice, donated wedding cakes, signs festooned with hearts. In Northampton, one couple glimpsed the line that stretched 150-long by 8:30 a.m. and thought better of it: "We're going to yoga," one said. "Then we'll come back."

In Worcester, where clerks usually handle marriage applications from two windows, the office opened six windows and shunted fishing and hunting applications to the side. In some ways, the day still seemed typical, said Worcester marriage clerk Debbie Mattress. "They're just as happy as everyone else that comes in."

But she noticed that yesterday's applicants, perhaps from nerves or excitement, seemed to have exceptional penmanship. "They printed very clearly," she said. "They even spelled the month rather than using the number."

In smaller communities, town halls were sedate as couples quietly filled out applications beneath Norman Rockwell paintings and black-and-white photos of town founders. And the anticipated flood of couples turned out to be modest, just a bit more than a typical Monday in May. "Busy this morning?" a tax collection clerk called out to Linda Ochenduszko, sitting on a bench outside Dedham Town Hall.

Ochenduszko, who works in the clerk's office, shook her head; only seven couples so far. After following the TV news reports from Boston and Cambridge, she figured she knew why.

"If it was me . . . I would want to go where the excitement was," she said.

But if people wanted to come to Dedham, that was fine with her. "In this day and age, I just think that there's too much sadness and frightening things going on," she said. "It's nice to see a happy thing once in a while."

Not everyone was pleased with the turn of events. Dedham's veterans' agent, Robert Ashman, questioned the idea of gay marriage. "I believe in civil unions," he said. "I think gay marriage," he hesitated, searching for words. "Marriage doesn't ring true in that situation."

But while some eyebrows were raised and questions murmured, explicit protests were scattered and few. In

Plymouth, a father and his son-in-law held signs opposing gay marriage and citing the Bible, ignoring a man who called them "bigots" and a woman who gave them a thumbs-down from the steps of the brick town hall.

More common, and more vocal, were supporters. In Salem, Worcester, and Northampton, some heterosexual couples applied for their own marriage licenses in a show of solidarity.

"We wanted to celebrate a landmark in civil rights. What better day to get our license?" said Doug Kohl, 45, a real estate developer from Northampton, who said the Supreme Judicial Court's gay-marriage decision convinced him to marry his girlfriend of 10 years.

Some clerks' offices tried to be especially accommodating. In Weymouth, where several couples stood waiting outside town hall for a half an hour before it opened, town clerk Frank Fryer unlatched the doors early "because we didn't think it was right to leave them sitting out in the cold."

"It was a new experience for them, and it was a new experience for us," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "But everything went well."

Some couples appeared to be surprised by some of the more mundane rituals of marriage. In Hull, Lou Ann Ashburnand Kathleen Molony didn't quite know what to do when a clerk asked them whether they'd be taking a single name.

And in Plymouth, Linda Dalton wondered if her new marriage license would still be valid at the time of her celebration in August.

"It's good for how long?" she asked clerk Laurence Pizer.

Pizer misunderstood the question. "Until you die," he answered.

These may have been historic moments in one of America's most historic towns, but the conversations surrounding the licenses tended toward the ordinary. Paul Duseau Jr., 41, and Scott Burris, 38, the first couple to show up at town hall for its 8 a.m. opening, forgot their $25 fee. Sandra Rodriguez and Dianne Guarino bickered good-naturedly over whose name would come first in their new hyphenated last name. By the time they left, it was Guarino-Rodriguez.

One woman who had come to Plymouth Town Hall on other business turned toward Pizer and probed his views. "Craziness," she said. "I'm not sure how to look at it."

Pizer looked at her mildly, and repeated what he and his deputies had agreed would be the most appropriate response.

"You look at it as it's the law," he said.

Beth Daley, Stephanie Ebbert, Brian MacQuarrie, Raja Mishra, Michael Paulson, Sarah Schweitzer, and Megan Tench of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Suzanne Sataline, Megan Tench, Brendan McCarthy, and Jared Stearns contributed to this story.

© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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