[27 June 2007]
Gays wed, world doesn’t end
—Bay Windows lead headline, May 17, 2004
Since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision to end racial segregation in schools in 1954, the date 17 May has been etched into America’s historical consciousness for its role in the advancement of U.S. civil rights. Every 17 May, Americans remember the significance of that court case in redefining equality by forcing the nation to understand that separate is not, and has never been, equal.
Exactly 50 years later, 17 May got another notch on its belt: On 17 May 2004, same-sex couples in Massachusetts were given the right to marry, making them finally equal in the eyes of a society that largely views a marriage certificate as the only legitimate foundation for love, family, and a plethora of tax breaks. In Massachusetts, gay partners no longer have to worry about lacking spousal hospital-visitation rights or employee benefits; gay parents no longer have to spend precious time explaining to doctors their relationships to their sick children; and gay couples and their families enjoy the same economic benefits from the state that their straight counterparts do. (These couples still do not receive the more than 1,100 federal marriage benefits to which heterosexual couples are entitled.)
That they share 17 May as the day the world turned is not the only parallel between the fights against gay and race-based discrimination: The legal foundation for the prosecution of the Massachusetts case, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, was based largely on court decisions on interracial marriage—from the California case that reversed the state’s interracial marriage ban in 1948 to the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, that did the same for the entire country. It took 19 years for the nation to catch up to California. Time will tell how long it will take for the nation to catch up with Massachusetts.
Courting Equality is a history, through photographs and accompanying text, of the long, complicated, and emotionally stirring path to same-sex marriage rights in Massachusetts. Taking the Goodridge lawsuit as its starting point, the book covers in detail the events leading up to 17 May 2004, and the inevitable aftermath of those events, as some legislators and constituents worked tirelessly to rescind the rights that same-sex couples had for years fought for and only just won.
Here is a brief synopsis of events surrounding the issue: In 2001, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) asked seven same-sex couples to request marriage licenses at their local city or town halls; all seven couples were denied. On 11 April 2001, GLAD filed suit on behalf of these couples. When the plaintiffs lost on the county level, GLAD appealed to the state’s high court. On 18 November 2003, two and a half years after Goodridge was filed, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state constitution “forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” The Court ordered the state to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on 17 May 2004.
That ruling spurred a statewide war, fought on the backs of the Goodridge plaintiffs and their attorneys, as the state legislature stepped in, trying to pass a Defense of Marriage Act to amend the constitution and make same-sex marriage illegal. Because of the complicated process a constitutional amendment must go through in Massachusetts, the same-sex marriage battle dragged on, dividing the state and bringing gay rights and family values to the forefront of local politics, for years. Even as gay couples wed in droves on 17 May and thereafter, they did so with the knowledge that their marriages would not be secure until the amendment was defeated. Only this month (June 2007) has the Massachusetts DOMA amendment died at last.
In riveting photographs and concise, informative prose, Courting Equality documents this period of political division in a state known as one of the nation’s most progressive. Patricia Gozemba’s and Karen Kahn’s text does a fine job helping the reader navigate complicated legal and legislative procedures, while Marilyn Humphries’ photographs illustrate all too movingly the blisteringly ripe emotions that defined the many months spent leading up to and after 17 May 2004, as legislators yelled and fumed and gay couples prepared to wed, knowing that the life of the right they would be exercising hung on a slim legislative margin.
Putting the fight for marriage rights in Massachusetts in context, the authors devote a full chapter to the history of gay rights in the U.S., from Stonewall through AIDS protests to foster care and adoption rights all the way up to civil unions and same-sex marriage battles. The authors explain how marriage rights have come to the forefront as a result of the greater social acceptance of gay people won by anti-discrimination activism: Before the 90s, “the possibility seemed so remote ... that lesbian and gay civil rights groups simply refused to entertain the issue.” That changed in 1993, when, in a suit similar to Goodridge, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples was a violation of the state’s equal rights amendment. Though gay men and lesbians never won the right to marry in Hawaii, due to the passage in 1998 of a DOMA-like amendment to the state constitution, the gay rights movement, predicting that soon marriage would be in reach, began to mobilize.
The gay community is by no means united on the importance or prioritization of marriage rights, and this is where the authors may commit a crime of omission. Some in the gay/queer community feel that marriage is by definition an oppressive institution, one that presumes the superiority of the nuclear family and discounts other kinds of family structures. Instead of pushing for marriage rights that allow for health care benefits and hospital visitation rights, this line of thought asks, why not push to change these policies so that they no longer discriminate, not only against gay men and lesbians but against other kinds of relationships as well? Another concern is that gay marriage signals the mainstreaming of queer culture, and that, in marrying, queers become just like everyone else, which obviates any kind of queer subculture. Others simply think the gay community should be focusing on other issues, for instance, fighting discrimination in immigration rights, in the Army, or society at large.
The authors seem to presume that the only opposition to same-sex marriage rights during this period came from conservatives and religious fundamentalists, painting a picture of us v. them which is not necessarily accurate. They also don’t look outside Massachusetts much to document the effect of one state’s battle on the country at large. But, of course, documenting the issue on a national scale is not the authors’ project, and that would be another book entirely.
However one felt about it at the time, the fight for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts drew in an entire state in perhaps the most exciting study of grassroots politics since the Vietnam and Civil Rights eras. It surely calls for documentation, especially now that many of us have forgotten about it in the everyday tidal wave of information; Courting Equality fulfills this role in text and photographs, just as a documentary film, Saving Marriage, currently making film festival rounds, does in moving picture. As our attention is turned to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worthwhile to return to a battle at home that, for a short time, made local politics count once again. Anyone harboring political apathy need only see Humphries’ photographs of Massachusetts citizens flooding the State House with signs, banners, and visibly raw emotions, to recognize democracy in action.