The impact of the Massachusetts gay marriage decision
January 2, 2004 | Page 8
IN A significant victory for gay rights, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry. The ruling overturned a state ban on same-sex marriage and opened the way for gays and lesbians to gain access to rights available to married couples. But the anti-gay bigots have lashed back, led by Massachusetts' Republican Gov. Mitt Romney--who denounced the decision and is demanding that the state legislature come up with a "compromise" that offers gay and lesbian couples rights under civil unions, instead of marriage.
What will the impact of this decision be in Massachusetts and around the country? Here, Socialist Worker talks to activists and people affected by the Goodridge decision about what the future holds.
GREGORY CLOUTIER lives in Massachusetts and works as an AIDS researcher. He and his long-term partner are planning to marry in the wake of the decision.
VALERIE FEIN-ZACHARY is chairperson of the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts. The coalition's Web site can be found at www.equalmarriage.org.
STEVE TRUSSELL lives in Boston and is a member of the International Socialist Organization.
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WHY DO you think marriage rights are an important issue for gays and lesbians?
Gregory Marriage will be a protection for my partner and me. Right now, if one of us becomes critically ill, we could be kept out of the hospital room. If we were married, I could have full medical benefits through his employer. We've been together 12 years, and I can't have those now.
And if anything were to happen to my partner, I could be tossed out of my house, because it's not in my name. Even though his family loves me, you never know, and all things can change when lawyers and money become involved. Marriage rights will give people options.
Marriage also says that our relationships are just as good as anyone else's. We're second-class citizens today because we often can only be open about who we are in a few small places. Where I live, in the suburbs of Boston, we can't just say that we're a couple. Marriage will give us equal recognition.
Steve I can't think of another legal reform that would do more to advance equality between gay and straight working-class people. As socialists, we understand that any inequality inside the working class only weakens us. Gay marriage will mean that working class gays and lesbians can fully participate in the fights for family protections, like health care, family leave and pensions.
Gay marriage is also a huge blow to the radical right's dogma of how a family should look and behave--which is why they're so crazed over the Goodridge decision.
Valerie I believe that for gays and lesbians, civil marriage rights are fundamental to our full acceptance in society. It means that we are fully accepted into the fabric of America when we have a right to marry. All other forms of discrimination, like in housing and employment, will have to fall down after that.
WHAT HAS been the response of the right wing? Will the traditional employee and state benefits be immediately available for gay couples who marry, or will there be a struggle to win equal treatment?
Valerie The right wing understands that this is a complete victory for us, which is why they're attempting to offer a civil unions compromise. That's also how we know we won--because we know they lost.
For the last 10 years, they've wanted to give us no rights. Now suddenly, they want to give us 350 rights under civil unions. Well, we just won 1,400 rights. That's the difference between civil unions and civil marriage. Three hundred fifty rights that come with civil unions, as opposed to 1,400 rights that come with civil marriage.
Steve It's too early to say what will be necessary from here, but it is safe to say that there are battles ahead. The sides are being clearly drawn.
Religious right and "pro-family" organizations from around the country are planning to send huge resources, both money and organizers, into Massachusetts to try to whip up opposition to gay marriage. Their hope is that if all else fails, they can win a majority of Massachusetts voters to support an anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution in 2006.
There has already been a "strategy meeting" in Boston where bigots from around the country and the state gathered to build a coalition against gay marriage. They'll bombard the TV and radio with disgusting ads, they're planning town hall meetings, and they have already scheduled a rally at the statehouse for January 7.
The question is whether or not forces on the left will organize to drive them out. We need to confront them every chance we get if we want to have and maintain in reality what has just been won in the courts.
Gregory Society won't just change by the flip of a switch. It will take time for society to recognize us as equals, but this is a step in the right direction. If the decision stays for marriage, then we will have the law on our side.
WILL THERE be implications nationally for gays and lesbians in the wake of this decision?
Valerie Absolutely. Twelve other states are now not defining marriage as one man and one woman. There's no reason to expect that couples who get married in Massachusetts won't be respected in those states when it comes to things like adoption and bereavement, for instance. Marriage in those states will be recognized as portable.
Steve This is a state decision, and there are obstacles in the way of gay marriage being recognized more generally--thanks in no small part due to Bill Clinton, who signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act into law. This issue and the Goodridge decision are adding to the intense polarization in the country right now.
Unfortunately, the movement for gay rights has suffered many more defeats than it has scored victories in recent years. I hope this decision will give our side confidence to make greater demands around the question of equality for gay people at the national level, but that can only happen in the context of wider struggles inside the working class, where homophobia can really be challenged and broken down.
In the meantime, if gay marriages in Massachusetts can give someone the courage to come out of the closet or help deter a teen from suicide, that would be a wonderful outcome.
WHAT SIGNIFICANCE does the Massachusetts decision have for those gays and lesbians who will choose to remain unmarried?
Valerie As gay, lesbian, and bisexual people we have been walking around under a cloud of shame for a long time. We have been unequal. Our coping mechanism has been not to care. If we didn't care that our rights were restricted, then it wouldn't hurt us.
But now we have full citizenship and the ability to make decisions for ourselves based on what is smart for our lives. Marriage has social, economic, and legal implications that can be very important for people, such as when gays and lesbians need legal protection, for instance. It's about having the freedom of choice to marry.
HOW WOULD you characterize the response to the decision, both from the general public and from state leaders?
Valerie The general public of the state has been in favor of civil marriage rights for the last few years. So the response has been wonderfully celebratory in a very affirming way.
The state leadership as a whole--particularly Mitt Romney and [Attorney General] Thomas Reilly have had a very unthoughtful response. It seems as if they didn't read or understand the decision. And they are blurring the lines of separation between church and state.
Steve The response from local leaders has been appalling. Mitt Romney--who during his campaign for governor in 2002 was discovered to have been donating money to a college that expelled gay students--has his sights set high in the Republican Party and doesn't want his state to perform the first gay civil marriages in the U.S.
Two well-known Massachusetts Democrats, Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Barney Frank, both offered quiet support for the decision after the ruling. But they certainly aren't putting themselves on the line over it.
Sen. John Kerry has come out against the ruling along with all of the other leading Democratic presidential contenders--including the favorite of the gay media, Howard Dean. Only Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun and Dennis Kucinich have come out in favor of the decision, which isn't that surprising since they are only being tolerated by their own party so that they can round up and deliver liberal voters into the arms of whichever centrist gets the nomination.
Clearly, gay marriage is not going to be won or defended through elections any time soon. On the other hand, one of the best things to have come out of this so far has been the widespread support for the decision from ordinary people in Massachusetts. It's like a silent majority that has been given the chance to be recognized.
The polls have consistently shown a majority in favor of gay marriage, and the numbers are still going up. They have shown everyone that straight people in Massachusetts can and will support equality for gays and lesbians. That has really given people confidence that we can defend this ruling and see gay marriage become a reality.