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Massachusetts set to make history with same-sex marriage licenses
Why gay marriage is a civil right

May 14, 2004 | Page 5

STEVE TRUSSELL and ELIZABETH SCHULTE report on the struggle for gay marriage in Massachusetts, and explain why this is a fight for all of us.

SAME-SEX COUPLES across Massachusetts will gather at county clerk's offices to apply for marriage licenses on May 17. They are likely to get them--making Massachusetts the first state in U.S. history to issue legal licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

On Monday, a court-mandated 180-day waiting period will end, and the state government is under orders from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to grant the licenses--as a result of its landmark Goodridge decision last year. But as Socialist Worker goes to press a week before the deadline, groups of state lawmakers and religious organizations were hoping to win court injunctions to block the licenses from being issued--on the grounds that the Court overstepped its bounds in its ruling.

Gay rights activists and their supporters hope that if and when gay marriages become reality in Massachusetts, they will be hard to take away--even though a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, supported by both Republicans and Democrats, is in the works. People across the state will attend or know about same-sex marriage ceremonies in the coming months--giving increased visibility to gay and lesbian families that will likely win broader support for the cause of equal rights.

It's also likely to add to the backlash--from the bigots who want to turn back the clock. Ever since the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of gay marriage in November, antigay politicians have worked tirelessly to block the licenses.

Gov. Mitt Romney is continuing his attempts to win a stay of the ruling--to avoid "legal confusion" as the state legislature moves forward with a proposed amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between "one man and one woman." At the very least, state officials are under Romney's instructions to enforce a 1913 law designed to prevent interracial marriages--by denying licenses to couples from out of state.

Massachusetts activists for gay marriage have relied on a purely legal strategy to defend the Goodridge decision. Many see the approach of May 17 without the right stopping same-sex marriage as proof that a legal strategy alone can win civil rights. But this attitude has slowed the momentum of the gay marriage movement nationally--and is holding it back in many places.

In March, the California Supreme Court stopped San Francisco from issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. When Mayor Gavin Newsom agreed to abide by the decision, gays and lesbians took his lead by agreeing to let the legal process play out.

In Rhode Island--next to Massachusetts, with no laws banning gay marriage and many openly gay officials--efforts to demand equal marriage rights have been silenced by "gay-friendly" politicians. There is every reason to see Rhode Island as the next battleground in the gay marriage struggle. Yet state Sen. Rhoda Perry, who sponsored gay marriage legislation, isn't calling for a vote on the measure. "We think its best not to do anything this year," Perry said.

In Massachusetts, those who advocate the legal road have played down setbacks and refused to admit defeats--as when the state legislature took the first steps toward passing a constitutional ban on gay marriage earlier this year. Last week, the New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a measure that bars recognition of marriage licenses obtained by same-sex couples in other states.

The fact remains that 38 states in the U.S. prohibit gay marriage--and 13 states are pursuing constitutional bans. Yet in the face of this backlash, most supporters of gay marriage have been content to put their faith in Democratic Party politicians.

This is a recipe for defeat. Out of 273 Democrats in Congress, only seven have publicly spoken in favor of gay marriage. When Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry--the Democrats' certain presidential nominee--was asked to comment on Romney's use of the 1913 segregation law, he had no comment.

The Democratic Party's establishment won't publicly support real equality for gays and lesbians. It can't be trusted with the future of this struggle for our rights. In fact, the party's leadership seems to have temporarily regained control of the situation, successfully reeling in the likes of Newsom and redirecting the efforts of gay rights organizations into purely legal channels.

All this shows why a legal strategy--while important--can't win gay marriage by itself. We need a grassroots movement that fights for broad support--and makes it impossible for the politicians to continue treating gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered as second-class citizens.

May 17 is not only the day that Massachusetts is supposed to end marriage discrimination. It is also the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Activists should remember that the Brown decision marked the beginning of a new phase in the civil rights struggle that ended segregation--not the end.

No back-of-the-bus compromises!

THE OUTPOURING of support for gay marriage came on the scene like a lightning bolt. Couples lined up in the thousands on the courthouse steps in San Francisco after Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that same-sex marriage licenses would be issued beginning February 12. The lines didn't thin out, either--until March 12, when the state Supreme Court ruled that the city had to stop issuing the licenses.

In cities large and small--from Portland, Ore., to Sandoval County, N.M.--local officials began issuing same-sex marriage licenses. New Paltz, N.Y. Mayor Jason West of the Green Party issued licenses in open defiance of state laws. And in cities across the country, gay rights supporters organized protests to demand marriage rights

In a matter of weeks, there was finally a platform for people to express their outrage at the right-wing's attempts to relegate gay, lesbian, bisexual and trangender (GLBT) people to second-class citizenship--and to confidently demand full and equal rights. All this was largely set in motion by the expectations raised by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decisions on gay marriage, which declared that "separate is seldom, if ever, equal."

More people still were mobilized when George W. Bush announced in February that he would support an amendment to the federal constitution banning gay marriage. Like the Southern bigots who opposed integrated schools and interracial marriage, the antigay Christian Right also took action. Groups like the Campaign for California Families--with legal teams and money to burn--tried to pass state gay marriage bans.

These mostly white groups want to take advantage of the conservatism of some minority, especially African American, churches on the issue of gay rights. For example, in March, Genevieve Wood of the antigay Family Research Council, warned a group of Black evangelical ministers that gays "are wrapping themselves in the flag of civil rights. I can make arguments against that. But not nearly like you all can."

But not many African Americans bought the bigots' claims. In Georgia, Black religious leaders in the state House of Representatives cast the deciding votes that temporarily stopped a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage. "What I see in this is hate," state Rep. Georganna Sinkfield told the New York Times, "I'm a Christian, but if we put this in the Constitution, what's next? People with dark hair? You're opening the floodgates for people to promote their own prejudice."

The right of gays and lesbians to marry is a civil rights issue--every bit as much as Jim Crow segregation or voting rights in the racist South. As Cynthia Rickert told the San Francisco Chronicle after she and her partner were married in February, "Everybody has a right to love each other. It's time for us to get off the back of the bus." There can be no compromise on this point.

Democratic politicians have urged patience on the issue of marriage, backing civil unions instead. But not only do the rights granted under civil unions fall far short of marriage--such as access to spousal Social Security benefits--but the distinction also leaves gays with a separate and unequal status. GLBT couples deserve the same rights as anybody else, period.

This should be our message to "gay-friendly" Democratic politicians who coach patience or compromise--like openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who urged Gavin Newsom to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses. "I was sorry to see the San Francisco thing go forward," Frank told the Associated Press in February. "When you're in a real struggle, San Francisco making a symbolic point becomes a diversion."

For Democrats like Frank, the "real struggle" is in getting John Kerry elected in November--and so he wants activists to delay the their fight so that a Democrat who opposes gay marriage can take the White House. We can't let the politicians turn the fight for equal marriage on and off like a spigot when it suits them.

There is no shortcut. Only building activist organizations and actions that put pressure on the politicians can guarantee that gays and lesbians will win equal rights--without compromises. This will be the key to the struggles for gay marriage that lie ahead.

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