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Don't rely on the Democrats to take our side
We have to demand our rights

April 23, 2004 | Page 4

Dear Socialist Worker,
After two stunning legal victories last year in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), gay marriage activists and supporters suffered our first defeat. On March 29, the state legislature passed an amendment to the Massachusetts constitution that would ban gay marriage--a direct response to the SJC decision that overturned a ban and opened the way for the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples next month.

This is only round one in a three-step amendment process, so the state constitution ban can't go into effect until 2006. But the legislature's vote still marks a defeat. Yet activists from MassEquality--the leading umbrella coalition of gay and lesbian lobbying groups--have gone to great lengths to focus solely on the votes they won.

While it's true that many legislators were convinced to vote against the amendment in recent months, it's also true that not all of the "no" votes were cast for equality. Some were a vote against the amendment from the right--because the ban on marriage does allow civil unions.

Unfortunately, MassEquality followed a strategy of questionable legal maneuvers to defeat the amendment from early this year. For instance, the pro-gay marriage lobby tried to make a deal with the devil and actually backed the amendment in the first two rounds of voting, reasoning that they could make it easier to defeat by adding civil unions to alienate the right wing. The opposite happened.

MassEquality ended up crafting the compromise--no to marriage, yes to civil unions--that eventually passed. As could have been predicted, many conservative lawmakers chose to concede civil unions in order to block marriage.

Also, supporters of gay marriage were responsible for adding language to the proposed amendment that specifically bars civil unions for gays and lesbians from having the same federal benefits as marriage. The logic of this was to make it harder for conservatives to "hide behind civil unions."

This initiative by the pro-gay marriage lobby was also successful--and the amendment now includes language that codifies unequal status for gays and lesbians. When it was clear that the legislature was going to pass the amendment on March 29, Arlene Isaacson, lead strategist for MassEquality, told supporters: "We knew this was a long-shot strategy. There will be more votes to come in 2004.

"We cannot give up. We cannot let them discourage us. We can't let them make us feel defeated." This fear of "feeling defeated" and commitment to a failing strategy led some MassEquality leaders to call the vote a victory. "We made them vote for something they hate [civil unions]," MassEquality steering committee member Holly Gunner told reporters after the vote. "We made them play on our terms, and that shows strength."

This refusal to honestly assess the situation represents a dead end for our movement. It's time for activists to reassess our strategy. We need to take to the streets like every civil rights movement that has come before. We raised these movements' slogans--"No back of the bus," "Separate is not Equal." It's now time to adopt their tactics.

MassEquality argues that the next phase of the battle will be the November elections. How they expect to force legislators to support gay marriage through the election is anyone's guess.

But even more importantly, focusing on November is completely premature. It takes for granted the outcome of what might be our most critical fight. On May 17, the state is under orders from the SJC to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

But Gov. Mitt Romney is determined to defy the SJC. As soon as the amendment passed in March, Romney announced his plans to go to the SJC for an injunction against the licenses being issued--on the basis that gay marriages now would "create a great deal of confusion."

Many activists breathed a sigh of relief when the Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly stood up against the governor last week. Reilly has the authority to prevent Romney from making his argument to the SJC. But Reilly hasn't given gays and lesbians any reason to trust him.

He is an ardent foe of gay marriage and is shamefully using a 1913 law--which was originally designed to maintain racial segregation--to keep gay couples from states where they are banned from getting married from getting a license from Massachusetts. And if Romney does get to argue in front of the SJC, can we confidently say that none of the justices in the 5-4 majority in last year's Goodridge decision that overturned the gay marriage ban will allow a stay?

The pressure on the Democratic justices will be immense--especially considering that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry opposes gay marriage, supports the recently passed amendment and doesn't want gay weddings to be the backdrop for the Democratic National Convention in Boston this summer.

History has shown that a court--even one as brave and unapologetic as this one has been--cannot enforce its own ruling in the face of a hostile state government. We can no longer rely on anyone else to defend our rights for us. We must defend them ourselves.

We must organize ourselves into a social force--a force that can win the hearts and minds of people in Massachusetts, while making the Christian fundamentalists and the bullying state legislators reluctant to attack our rights.

We need to plan now for May 17. People from around the state and around the country must be at City Hall Plaza for this making of history. We need all eyes on Boston to bear witness to the day when gays and lesbians finally win equality. And if Romney stops us, we have to expose to the whole country this great injustice--an injustice done on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that began the battle over desegregation.

But either way, our next step is clear. We go to receive--or demand--our licenses. And to those who say, "Let the legal and legislative process play out," or that "the timing is wrong," we say, "We won't wait for the marriage licenses that the SJC has twice ruled that we are entitled to!"

And what would look bad about demanding what is rightfully ours against forces that would keep us from gaining our rights? There is a proud tradition of public protest for us to look to now.

As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.

"For years now, I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"
Steve Trussell, Boston

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