More Backlash Than Bliss 1 Year After Marriage Law
In the year since Massachusetts became the only state to permit gays and lesbians to wed, more than 6,000 same-sex couples have traded marriage vows.
To commemorate today’s anniversary, many of those couples plan to waltz at a gala party at Boston’s swank Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel and pose for a group photograph outside the statehouse. Among other festivities around the state, the Boston suburb of Belmont plans an ice cream social.
But those celebrations occur against a sobering national backdrop for supporters of same-sex marriage: A powerful coast-to-coast backlash has meant that rather than emerging as the legal trendsetter on marriage for gays and lesbians, Massachusetts has become a cultural anomaly.
Opponents of same-sex marriage have successfully marshaled forces to prevent other states from following suit. Legalizing same-sex marriage has had the effect, unintended by its backers, of providing a new sense of purpose for groups and individuals who identify themselves as pro-family.
Supporters of traditional marriage are carefully monitoring measures concerning gays and lesbians in legislatures around the country. They study school curricula, watching for signs of acceptance of same-sex family structures. To keep the topic in the public eye, they stage rallies, including one last month at a parking lot in Augusta, Maine, during a bitter spring rainstorm that drew 1,000 supporters.
“Nothing has energized previously uninvolved citizens more than this issue,” said Robert Knight, who traveled to Augusta as director of the Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America in Washington.
“It has energized the pro-family movement because it has moved the debate beyond theory to actual images of men marrying men and women marrying women,” Knight said. “And the realization has set in that this is about more than marriage. It will affect, eventually, every classroom in the country, as textbooks begin to portray two men as a marriage. And it will affect businesses as they are forced to subsidize homosexual relationships.”
Moreover, Knight said, “the political impact alone has been enormous. It probably swung the election for George W. Bush.”
The man who Bush defeated in last year’s presidential race, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, might not disagree. This month, Kerry criticized the Massachusetts Democratic Party for supporting same-sex marriage in its new platform.
“I think it’s a mistake,” Kerry said. “I think it’s the wrong thing.”
That sentiment is shared by many in government, including Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican.
“In Congress and in statehouses nationwide, it’s rhetorical and legislative open season” on gays and lesbians, said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington. In large part he blames “the anti-gay industry, which has used the marriage issue as a way to ratchet up its really venomous rhetoric.”
Foreman said same-sex marriage had provided his opponents “a wonderful organizing opportunity, because they are able to exploit so many people’s lack of understanding about gay people, and their visceral feelings about the institution of marriage.”
But Foreman said Massachusetts might be its own best advertisement for the harmlessness of same-sex marriage. In the last year, he noted, “nobody in the Legislature who supported gay marriage lost their jobs, and the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. And the crops came up, and the locusts stayed away.”
But constitutional amendments restricting marriage to a union between one man and one woman passed overwhelmingly on ballots of all 13 states that took up such measures last year. Four state legislatures have approved similar amendments to their constitutions. California is one of 16 states where amendments banning same-sex marriage are pending.
A federal judge in Nebraska, however, struck down that state’s ban on gay marriage last week, saying that a constitutional amendment approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2000 barred gays and lesbians from too many other rights, including adoption and foster parenting.
Courts in California, New York, New Mexico and Oregon nullified same-sex marriages that briefly had been permitted by municipalities. In states where marriage for gays and lesbians is under consideration, such as Maine, opponents of same-sex marriage have stepped up their efforts.
H.B. London Jr., vice president of ministry outreach/pastoral ministries at Focus on the Family, said he traveled from Colorado last month to demonstrate in Augusta because “Maine is right in that line of states with Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. They all have very liberal leadership, and I think that makes marriage vulnerable.”
London added: “What happened in Massachusetts was a wake-up call to the rest of the United States that if you aren’t vigilant, and if you don’t stand firmly on what you believe morally and spiritually, traditional marriage is in jeopardy.”
Even in Massachusetts, the legality of same-sex marriage is not guaranteed to stay that way.
State Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, a Democrat, said he would convene a constitutional convention Aug. 24 to consider an amendment that would bar same-sex marriage but legalize civil unions for gays and lesbians.
The bill won preliminary approval from the Legislature last year, but not in time to block the ruling by the state’s highest court that allowed gay and lesbian couples to take out marriage licenses, beginning May 17, 2004. The court ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts advocacy group known as GLAD, for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.
If the bill barring same-sex marriage passes the full Legislature in the 2005-06 session, the amendment would still need the approval of voters on the November 2006 ballot.
Marty Rouse, campaign director for a group fighting to preserve same-sex marriage called MassEquality, said his organization was worried. “We currently do not have the votes to defeat this amendment,” Rouse said. If the bill earns legislative approval, Rouse said, he could not predict what would happen in a general election: “We don’t know what the people would do behind the curtain of a voting booth.”
But Bob Meadow, a partner in the Washington polling firm Lake Snell Perry Mermin/Decision Research, said survey data from Massachusetts indicated strong support for allowing same-sex marriage. Meadow said a poll released May 4 found that 61% of voters approved of the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision to extend marriage to gays and lesbians. The margin of error in the poll, commissioned by the MassEquality Education Fund, was plus or minus 4 percentage points, he said.
In addition, Meadow said, 84% of those questioned said legalizing same-sex marriage either had a positive effect or no effect on the quality of life in Massachusetts. Nearly the same percentage said same-sex marriages had no effect on traditional marriages.
According to GLAD, all the Massachusetts legislators who supported gay and lesbian marriage were returned to office in November. Two same-sex marriage opponents lost their legislative seats in 2004 primaries, and three supporters won special elections last month.
When neighboring Connecticut authorized civil unions for gays and lesbians last month, it became the first state to approve marriage-like rights for same-sex couples through its Legislature and not under court order. Vermont, which pioneered civil union in 2000, was ordered to create marriage-like status for gays and lesbians by its top court.
In Washington, the state Supreme Court is expected to rule on same-sex marriage this year.
Same-sex marriage in Massachusetts remains restricted to state residents. To ensure that, Gov. Romney invoked an obscure 1913 statute to prevent couples from out of state from marrying here.
Despite the repercussions, GLAD lawyer Mary Bonauto -- who argued the court case that changed the law in Massachusetts -- said the cause of same-sex marriage had advanced since the first marriage licenses were issued last May.
“Of course there are going to be obstacles,” she said. “There are going to be obstacles for years and years. No social justice struggle has ever been won in a day, or even a year. What is important is that we are moving forward.”
In the last year, same-sex marriage licenses were issued in every Massachusetts county and at least 290 of the 351 cities and towns. Nearly twice as many female couples took out marriage licenses as male couples.
For Marcia Hamm and Susan Shepherd, what was important was a new sense of affirmation. Partners for 27 years, Hamm and Shepherd camped outside Cambridge City Hall for 24 hours last May, determined to become the country’s first same-sex couple to get a valid marriage license.
Unlike many same-sex couples, Hamm, 58, said she and Shepherd, 53, never had a commitment ceremony.
They did not wear wedding rings until they traded marriage vows.
Before marriage, she said, they sometimes had trouble explaining their family situation.
Their son Peter, 25, often told his hockey teammates that Hamm was his mother and Shepherd, his aunt; now he calls them both Mom.
Their first year of marriage has been “just wonderful,” Hamm said. “And the surprise is that it has felt so different to be married, even after all these years.”