BOSTON — As the U.S. Supreme Court ponders the future of same-sex marriage, the nine justices could consider the experience in Massachusetts, the state with the longest-running real-world test of what happens when gay couples are allowed to tie the knot.
The legalization of same-sex marriages just over a decade ago has led to a steady stream of gay couples opting to take vows, a change that has grown routine in a state that was already known for its liberal social views.
Between May 2004 — when same-sex marriages were first allowed in Massachusetts — and the end of 2013, a total of 25,785 gay couples have married here, according to a review of state records by The Associated Press. That's about 7 percent of the 368,675 marriages in Massachusetts during the same time period, out of a state population of 6.7 million.
A PENT-UP DEMAND
There was an initial burst of same-sex marriages on and just after the May 17, 2004, the date set by the court for legalization. Some couples waited outside city halls in communities like Cambridge, where marriage ceremonies began just after midnight.
The pent-up demand led to more than 6,100 same sex-marriages by the end of 2004.
Linda Bailey-Davies, 69, and Gloria Bailey-Davies, 74, were one of those couples who exchanged vows on May 17 after a 33-year courtship. They were among seven couples in the landmark lawsuit. The couple, who live in the Cape Cod community of Orleans, say the legal status that comes with marriage is nearly as important as the public acknowledgment of their commitment.
"To me, being legal next of kin means that we can be at each other's side no matter what happens in any medical situation," Gloria Bailey-Davies said. "It's taken an awful lot of the fear of aging away."
A SETTLING DOWN
In the years since 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 that same-sex marriages were protected by the state constitution, the number of gay marriages has tapered off and stabilized.
Between 2005 — after the initial crush of gay marriages — and 2013, the number of same-sex marriages has averaged nearly 2,200 each year out of the more than 35,000 weddings between opposite-sex couples that the state averaged each year during the same period. That means about 6 percent of the state's marriages each year are between same-sex couples.
Perhaps the starkest revelation in the statistics in Massachusetts is the dramatic difference between the number of marriages involving two women compared with the number of marriages involving two men.
Between 2004 and 2013, there have been nearly 16,000 weddings of two women in Massachusetts, compared with about 9,900 involving two men.
What the statistics fail to reveal is how many of those same-sex weddings have ended in divorce, something the state doesn't track.
While the overall number of divorces in the state has ticked up in recent years, Massachusetts has maintained one of the lowest overall divorce rates of any state — both before and after gay marriage was legalized.
In 2012, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Massachusetts had a divorce rate of 2.7 per 1,000 of the total population.
Only Illinois and Iowa had lower rates of the 45 states that reported divorce rates. Connecticut tied with Massachusetts.
Even so, same-sex marriages are not immune to the stresses that other marriages face.
The couple at the center of the state's historic 2004 ruling, Julie and Hillary Goodridge, filed for divorce in 2009.
NEWLYWEDS AND CRITICS
The state has also seen some high-profile same-sex nuptials since 2004, including the 2012 wedding of former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank to his longtime partner, Jim Ready, in a ceremony officiated by then-Gov. Deval Patrick.
More recently, Democratic state Senate President Stan Rosenberg, 65, announced plans to marry his partner, Bryon Hefner, 27. Republican Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, at one time a staunch opponent of gay marriage, will officiate.
Not everyone has cheered. Kris Mineau, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Family Institute, led the fight against same-sex marriage.
His group collected more 120,000 voter signatures to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the state ballot that would have defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Lawmakers blocked the question in 2007.
"I believe it would have changed the course of history had we been able to vote here in Massachusetts," he said. "I don't believe we'd be before the Supreme Court now."