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A celebration
This week’s same-sex marriages marked a landmark for the state and the nation. Now it’s up to all of us to protect marriage from the likes of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

MONDAY, MAY 17, 2004 — the first day same-sex couples could legally marry, not only in Massachusetts but anywhere in the country — was a celebration, a triumph, and an eloquent statement about the utter, mundane normality of lesbian and gay life. With the boundless enthusiasm shared by every heterosexual couple who ties the knot, Julie Goodridge, who married her partner, Hillary Goodridge, at the Beacon Hill headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association, boldly declared, "We are no different than anyone else. Our marriage is going to last forever, just like any other committed, loving couple."

Monday also represented the worst of all possible outcomes for those who have sought to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to wed. The public could see for itself that the scare tactics, the warnings of chaos and confusion, were hollow and meaningless. Rather, couples celebrated their love for each other in ways that must have reminded many onlookers of their own weddings. A Boston Globe survey found that of 752 same-sex couples who were married on Monday in 11 communities surveyed, the median age was 43, the median duration of their relationships was 10 years, and a significant proportion (40 percent of lesbian couples, 12 percent of male couples) had children living with them. In other words, these are mainstream Americans, and that bodes well as the gay-marriage battle moves forward.

The story of the United States, since its founding, is the story of how more and more people have been included under the umbrella of full and equal citizenship. In the early days of the republic, the right to vote was restricted to white-male property owners. Gradually, haltingly, and only after a devastating civil war and, 100 years later, a stirring civil-rights movement, one excluded group after another came to be included under that umbrella: women, African-Americans, the disabled, and other classes of citizens.

It’s always been different for gay men and lesbians. For one thing, they were never denied such basic rights as voting and property ownership; at issue was their right to live and love and form relationships as they saw fit. For another, the very notion of an identifiable gay community was alien until recently. A generation ago, homosexuality was still considered a psychological disorder — a reminder of the incredible distance we have traveled during the past three decades.

Though Massachusetts is the only state to legalize same-sex marriage, the effect on other jurisdictions is likely to be immediate. Already, the attorneys general of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York have said that same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts may be recognized in their states. Soon we can expect to see legal challenges in other states, and against the loathsome federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Sadly, some powerful people and institutions find themselves on the wrong side of history. Archbishop Seán O’Malley’s outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage has been an insult to those who respect the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. Never mind the hypocrisy of objections coming from a religious organization still struggling to overcome the grotesque sexual misconduct of its own priests. The more important issue is that state-sanctioned marriage is a civil institution, and no one is trying to force the Catholic Church — or any other denomination — to perform same-sex marriages. Just as society is not attempting to impose its views on the Church, so the Church should not attempt to impose its views on the rest of us.

But the true villains of the same-sex-marriage debate are President Bush and Governor Mitt Romney. Bush greeted the news of Massachusetts’s first gay marriages by repeating his call for an amendment to the US Constitution that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman — a cynical, politically motivated misuse of the constitutional-amendment process, which has almost always been about expanding rights rather than restricting them. Romney, apparently seeking to impress the right-wing extremists who control the national Republican Party, has done his best George Wallace imitation, citing an obscure 1913 law of racist origins in a figurative attempt to bar the doors of city and town halls to out-of-state couples. A few brave local officials — in Somerville, Provincetown, Springfield, and Worcester — defied Romney by refusing to demand proof of residency. Boston’s sometimes-grumpy mayor, Tom Menino, said one thing — with a wink — and then appeared to do another. The result: marriage licenses for same-sex couples were processed smoothly for both Massachusetts residents and out-of-staters. Good for Menino.

The road ahead is perilous, but the events of this week may make it smoother. Recently, the state legislature gave initial approval to a state constitutional amendment that would restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, but would create "marriage lite" civil unions for lesbians and gay men. Pro-marriage activists will have two chances to defeat this amendment: in the legislature, which must pass it again during the 2005-’06 session; or, failing that, at the ballot box in November 2006. The likelihood that such a restrictive amendment will ever win approval should diminish substantially as Massachusetts voters come to see that same-sex marriage threatens no one, and guarantees long-sought equality to lesbians and gay men — who, after all, number among their families, friends, and neighbors.

In its landmark Goodridge decision last fall, named for the same couple who got married on Beacon Hill this past Monday, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court said: "The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens." With pious, mean-spirited self-righteousness, Bush, Romney, O’Malley, and other opponents of same-sex marriage continue to rail against what are inevitably referred to as "four unelected judges." But what Chief Justice Margaret Marshall and her colleagues found in Goodridge was not some new, undiscovered right. Rather, they discovered a right that was already there but couldn’t be grasped until society had evolved to a point where it became obvious, just, and necessary.

The majority does not get to vote on the humanity of the minority. That’s what living in a constitutional democracy is all about. This is a great week for Massachusetts and for the nation. It’s now up to the rest of us to make sure that our highest ideals survive the depredations of the mob.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com

Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
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