Equality's Nor'easter

AP Photo/Steven Senne

Rhode Island state senator Donna Nesselbush, a Democrat from Pawtucket, reacts seconds after the state senate passed a same-sex marriage bill.

At this point, it’s almost a yawn: The last and most Catholic New England state, tiny Rhode Island, population just over one million, passed marriage equality last week. Just nine years after Massachusetts set off moral panic nationwide and triggered the final wave of state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, all of New England has now followed the Bay State’s lead. Rhode Island has recognized same-sex marriages performed in other states since 2010; nowhere were you more than an hour’s drive from a state where you could marry—the Ocean State is bordered by Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, all equal-marriage states. 

What does it mean that the most socially tolerant region in the country—New England, which, had it not fostered the American revolution, could easily fit in as a Canadian province—has watched Massachusetts’s experiment and concluded that it’s a good one? You could say that filling New England with equal marriage laws is comparatively trivial. After all, New England comprises only 14.5 million people, fewer than the nearly 20 million residents of our neighbor and sports rival New York. Even adding those together, that’s hardly a drop in a nation of nearly 312 million. And it’s a region often ignored by the rest of the country, easily dismissed as “liberal New England” or as a postcard image of a quaint and nearly European past. 

And yet these wins do matter. Getting marriage through each of these ten states took separate and significant organizing efforts, requiring LGBT groups and individuals to persuade and pressure their friends, neighbors, legislators, and employers via lawsuits, legislative battles, ballot initiatives, and recall efforts. Most important, one by one each of the state wins serves to show the rest of the country it has nothing to fear from marriage equality.

It is worth taking a moment to look back on how we got here. It was a rogue Hawaii lawsuit, opposed by all the major LGBT advocacy groups, that launched the marriage-equality movement: Baehr v. Lewin was brought by a few couples and a non-gay lawyer, all on their own. As expected, they lost at the trial court and then on appeal. But in 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court remanded the case back down for trial on a stricter standard, asking: If Jane could marry Mark but not Mary, why wasn’t that sex discrimination? The odd sound you heard was thousands of lesbians and gay men gasping in shock at the brand-new idea that marriage was possible in our lifetime. In the end, Hawaii wasn’t the breakthrough state. But it gave Mary Bonauto, civil-rights director at New England’s Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD)—and the woman generally considered to be the Thurgood Marshall of the marriage-equality movement—the opening she needed to start playing marriage chess here in our region. She made the first move in Vermont, partnering with attorneys Beth Robinson and Susan Murray to file a lawsuit with hand-selected couples who represented different parts of the state, geographically, demographically, and historically. The lawyers picked Vermont because it had already, step by step, established equality for lesbians and gay men with such measures as antidiscrimination laws and the ability to adopt each others’ children or to adopt together. In 1999, the Vermont supreme court ordered, in Baker v. Vermont, the state’s legislature to establish equality for same-sex couples. Vermont all but burst into flames during the consequent debate, which resulted in “civil unions,” that separate-but-unequal creation that brought cries of apocalypse—and anti-civil-union campaigns—across the country. 

Bonauto turned next to Massachusetts, where she launched Goodridge v. Massachusetts on behalf of six plaintiff couples. Goodridge was the winner: Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote a powerfully moving opinion that resulted in full marriage rights in 2004. As had happened in Vermont, homegrown LGBT organizations fiercely lobbied the legislature not to put the decision up for a repeal referendum. It was an enormous effort, requiring constant political pressure over two legislative sessions; MassEquality, the lobbying coalition put together by many different groups, managed to replace anti-marriage-equality veteran representatives and senators with pro-equality newcomers, notifying the rest about which side had more power in Massachusetts. It certainly helped that the Roman Catholic Church in the state had just been rocked by the pedophile-priest scandals; although the Massachusetts legislature was roughly 75 percent Catholic, who at that point was going to look to Archbishop Bernard Francis Law for moral guidance? The ground forces held GLAD’s win. 

Bonauto moved on by filing a marriage lawsuit in Connecticut, which followed the same formula. Prompted by Connecticut’s ground organizers, the state legislature responded by passing civil unions in 2005; there wasn’t much opposition left by the time Connecticut’s supreme court expanded those to full marriage rights in 2008. Meanwhile, in 2007, New Hampshire’s legislature added civil unions, which it upgraded to marriage in 2009, the same year that Vermont upgraded to full marriage as well. That same year, Maine’s legislature passed, and its governor signed, a marriage law, which the voters repealed in a referendum—and then flipped in 2012, passing a marriage law at the ballot box. Rhode Island passed civil unions in 2011, but a year later fewer than 50 couples signed up; the rest had either married in neighboring states or were holding out for full marriage rights at home—which, come August, they will have. 

Mary Bonauto, meanwhile, had already decided that the time was right to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—the federal law that prevents any of New England’s, or the nation’s, married same-sex couples from being recognized as such (here’s what I wrote for The Advocate about what will likely happen once the U.S. Supreme Court decides the Edie Windsor anti-DOMA case it recently heard). She launched the first New England DOMA challenge from Massachusetts in 2009, and the second one from Connecticut in 2010. Her lawsuits, strategizing, and collaborations throughout New England have been the single most important reason that New England is now solid for equality. 

Ned Flaherty

Marriage equality, a movement seeded by three couples in Hawaii but took root here in New England, has already spread far beyond, emerging in Iowa, New York, Maryland, and Washington as well. The debate is far along in California, New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota, and Oregon, each of which may very well have full marriage rights by the end of 2014. Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin already have civil unions, a good portent for the future. 

Every state will still have to have the same debates that we’ve had; as I’ve written here often, people change their minds on marriage equality one conversation at a time. But no state will again have to be first, second, or even third. Eleventh, twenty-fourth, thirtieth: by the time the conversation gets to your state—even though winning will still require serious ground organizing, lobbying, and a sophisticated media strategy—many of you will feel like you’ve been there and done that. Your organizers will have a profound well of experience to draw on. The question of same-sex marriage won’t ever again feel like such a shocking social experiment. 

Please forgive me, then, if I take this minute to say: nyaah, nyaah, nyaah. In 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to open marriage to same-sex pairs, a court decision that took effect on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education, mainstream pundits predicted dire political consequences. Many of the same pundits now trumpet marriage equality as eye-rollingly obvious, just, and inevitable. My side was right: The reaction was just people being startled by a new idea. There was a strong, immediate cultural reaction against same-sex marriage at first, but then people got increasingly used to the idea. By now, the states closest to us have all been able to look over their fences and see that nothing whatsoever has changed. And so will the rest of you.

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