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We won gay marriage in Massachusetts
Take this fight everywhere!

May 21, 2004 | Page 12

GINA SARTORI, CONOR MOREY-BARRETT and ELIZABETH SCHULTE report on the victory for gay marriage in Massachusetts.

THOUSANDS OF people gathered at city halls across Massachusetts May 17 as the state took its place in the history books as the first to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. In Cambridge, thousands gathered in front of city hall the night before--laughing, embracing and cutting cake as they waited for licenses to begin being issued at midnight.

"When everybody wakes up tomorrow and sees nothing bad happened--it's the same world it was the day before, there are only more people that are equal to them--they're going to see that there was nothing to fear,'' Sheldon Goldstein told the Boston Globe after getting her own marriage license in Provincetown.

That same day, gay marriage supporters organized solidarity actions in cities across the country to celebrate this civil rights victory--and to demand licenses of their own. Hundreds of people marched in San Francisco and Seattle. In Chicago, dozens of protesters occupied the Cook County marriage license office all day long, demanding the right to marry.

Fittingly, May 17 also marked the 50th anniversary of another civil rights landmark--the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal segregation in public schools. Last November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court echoed the Brown decision when its justices declared that "separate is seldom, if ever, equal" in the case of gay marriage.

The decision upheld the court's previous Goodridge decision, which stated that denying same-sex couples the rights that married couples enjoy violates the Massachusetts constitution's equal protection law. The Goodridge case dates back to 1996, when Julie Goodridge, who was recovering from a difficult cesarean section, and her newborn daughter were rushed to emergency care at a Boston hospital.

Hillary, Goodridge's partner of nine years, was unable to visit because hospital officials said that she wasn't a "family member." After today, fewer gay or lesbian couples will be forced to go through this experience.

The victory for gay marriage in Massachusetts is happening in spite of the efforts of antigay politicians like Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who tried to block the issuing of licenses. When this didn't work, Romney ordered town clerks to deny licenses to all couples who weren't Massachusetts residents--on the basis of a 1913 law aimed at blocking interracial marriages. But in three municipalities, officials said that they would defy Romney's order.

"Five years ago, this wasn't even on the horizon," Rebecca Binder, who came with her partner to city hall to support the victory, told Socialist Worker. But as Binder noted, the fight isn't over. "We still have a long way to go," she told Socialist Worker. "We need to defend this from the ground up."

In fact, the bigots remain determined to roll back gay marriage in Massachusetts. After last year's Supreme Judicial Court decisions, antigay politicians--Republicans and Democrats alike--went to work to reverse the rulings by trying to pass an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers considered several versions of constitutional ban--and passed the amendment at two separate sessions. Although this is only the first part of a three-step amendment process--guaranteeing that the ban can't go into effect until 2006--it's still a defeat for supporters of gay marriage.

Unfortunately, leaders of MassEquality--the umbrella coalition of gay and lesbian lobbying groups--pursued a strategy of questionable legal maneuvers in trying to stop the amendment. They actually supported the ban in two rounds of voting and called for a compromise--"no to marriage, yes to civil unions."

When the amendment passed, MassEquality refused to mobilize people to protest. All of this was disorienting to supporters of gay marriage--hundreds of whom had spontaneously come out to demonstrate during the constitutional convention.

MassEquality's focus is on winning the support of "gay-friendly" politicians and maintaining "respectability." Thus, when antigay bigots harassed gay marriage supporters at Boston's city hall on May 17, MassEquality organizers dispersed demonstrators who tried to shout them down--and allowed the bigots to stay!

Despite these weaknesses, the fact that the first legal marriages are taking place in Massachusetts is a huge victory for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people--and a step toward ending their second-class status all over the U.S. But there are still many fights ahead--not only to maintain equal marriage rights in Massachusetts, but to spread these rights to other states.

A strategy of compromise and reliance on the gay movement's fair-weather friends in the Democratic Party won't make this happen. On the day that marriage licenses were first issued in Massachusetts, Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry left the state to hit the campaign trail.

A Kerry aide told the Boston Globe that the candidate would not be addressing the issue. How can he? Kerry is against gay marriage.

It's urgent that we strengthen the networks of activists that have come together during this fight--and organize the pressure that will be needed to win equal marriage rights for all. "Grassroots activism is absolutely essential," said Tom, who with his partner, was one of the first people to get a gay marriage license.

Equal marriage now! We won't go back!

Activists across the U.S. say: Equal rights now!

IF THEY can do it in Massachusetts, we can do it here! That was the sentiment expressed by activists across the country on May 17.

In Chicago, 250 gay marriage supporters from the group Equal Marriage Now (EMN) marched into the county clerk's office to demand marriage licenses. County Clerk David Orr and Mayor Richard Daley have given verbal support to gay marriage, but both have refused to follow up their talk with action. Activists came prepared to give Orr a check for $500--the amount he would be fined if he began marrying gay and lesbian couples--but he refused to speak to them.

Janean Watkins and Lakeesha Harris, who between them have six children and hoped to apply for a license, told Socialist Worker, "This is exactly like the civil rights movement. On a daily basis, we face prejudice--for our color, for our sex, because we are gay, and because we have kids. Marriage rights wouldn't solve our problems, but they would alleviate them. We deserve this."

Activists refused to leave the county offices until 5 p.m., when they marched out, chanting and vowing to step up the struggle.

In San Francisco, where thousands of gay couples were issued marriage licenses beginning in February before state officials ordered city officials to stop, about 300 people marched downtown May 17. Protesters chanted, "Equal yes, bigots no! Homophobia has got to go!"

In Seattle, some 500 people took the streets on May 17 to demand "Equal marriage now!" A few days earlier, 300 people marched in Los Angeles to demand same-sex marriage.

At a rally at the end of the march, gay couples who were recently married in San Francisco talked about their struggle. Marcus, an immigrant from Guatemala, described how the government refuses to recognize his marriage and grant him citizenship.

He and his partner led the crowd in a chant of "Let our partners immigrate." "This is not about activist judges," Francisco Duenas, of Lambda Legal Defense, told the crowd. "This is about activists fighting for their rights."

In Washington, D.C., the mayor and city council expressed early support for marriage equality after the Goodridge decision. But gay rights groups and the D.C. gay caucus of the Democratic Party lobbied city officials not to push the issue--because D.C. is a federal territory controlled by the federal government.

They claim that a Republican-controlled Congress would not only overturn any local ruling on gay marriage, but would rewrite D.C.'s charter to include a "Defense of Marriage Act." But an ad-hoc coalition, Marriage Equality Now-D.C., organized an event for May 17 to galvanize the broad support for same-sex marriage.

The premise of this event--that there's never a "good" time to fight for equality--echoed the experience of the civil rights movement that justice delayed is justice denied. If we fight back, we can win!

Jeff Bale, Ann Coleman, Nell Crawford, Brian Cruz, Evan Kornfeld, Conor Morey-Barrett and Bob Wickman contributed to this report.

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