Saving Marriage

High contrasts, as well as grays in between, structure John Henning and Mike Roth's moving 2006 documentary about the legal and political battles surrounding gay marriage in Massachusetts.

Saving Marriage

Director: Mike Roth
Cast: Arline Isaacson, Sue Hyde, Josh Friedes, Mary Bonauto, Kris Mineau, Sen. Jarrett Barrios, Amy Hunt, Rep. Carl Sciortino
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Regent Releasing
Display Artist: John Henning, Mike Roth
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2008-10-10 (Limited release)
When we lobby gay issues, we're throwing out seeds onto the concrete of their minds. Every once in a while, a little crack a little fissure will develop and one of those seeds is going to fall into that fissure and one day that seed is going to germinate.

-- Arline Isaacson

In November 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the state's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. "It was momentous, it took my breath away," recalls Mary Bonauto, attorney for the seven couples who brought the suit that resulting in the ruling. And yet, she adds, "The opposition set in in about one nanosecond."

The moment and the nanosecond after are vividly rendered at the beginning of Saving Marriage. Even as Bonauto catches her breath, Kris Mineau, of the Massachusetts Family Institute, describes his own response: "It was to me as traumatic a moment as the day Kennedy was assassinated." Such high contrasts, as well as grays in between, structure John Henning and Mike Roth's moving 2006 documentary about the legal and political battles surrounding gay marriage in Massachusetts. These battles reflect national conflicts and aspirations that are still pulsating through popular and religious cultures, still dividing communities.

For Mineau, the problem is personal. Gay marriage, he says, "degrades the value of my marriage. It says my uniqueness as a man, as a husband, as a father, is irrelevant and now children are coming home to their heterosexual traditional families and saying, 'Oh, I don't need a mommy,' or 'I don't need a daddy,' or 'There's nothing special about your marriage... They're having a confusion and disorder being cast into the homes of Massachusetts because of this decision." From this perspective, the situation does sound dire. But Saving Marriage, even as it grants screentime to Mineau and other opponents of the ruling, is plainly pro-marriage.

That's not to say that Saving Marriage reductive. Rather, it reveals the complexities of the pro position, with people coming to it from many different directions, as gay or lesbian individuals, as parents, as friends, as lawyers and politicians. The film follows the various elements of the movement rallying in Massachusetts following the SJC ruling, while the state legislature gears up to re-legislate the matter. In March 2004, the legislature took up a state constitutional amendment that would override the court's decision, taking away the right of gay couples to wed. Gay rights activist Arline Isaacson describes her initial concern that gays and lesbians would come together in the face of such a daunting and ongoing battle. "I had wondered," she says, "if we had the self-respect and self-esteem to get behind the judgment," worrying that the legacy of oppression would be a sense of self-defeat. The film cuts to assorted shots of enthusiastic demonstrators and organizers, edited with shots of anti-gay-marriage protestors. "You're not legal," yells one woman, "It's not God's will." This collapse of religion and legality is the foundation of the pro-amendment forces, as indicated by a shot of three children, their faces blurred, shouting, "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!"

As activist Amy Hunt observes, "They don't object to gay marriage, they object to gay human beings."

The film charts the fight through individual stories, for instance, 25-year-old health care worker Carl Sciortino, who runs against pro-amendment incumbent state representative Vinnie Ciampa in order to be in the legislature for the amendment vote. Campaigning as an openly gay man brings certain concerns to the surface, he notes. After winning the Democratic primary, he makes a conscious choice not to appear hugging any of the male activists who contributed to the effort (he worries about providing photo ops for the Ciampa team to deem him a "big gay homo"). After he wins the general election against Ciampa, he decides it's okay to smile on stage and even hug his male supporters.

Sciortino's dilemma makes clear how complicated the issue of gay visibility remains. More than one interviewee reports that living together or even civil unions would be fine, but it's the assault on such a traditional, particularly visual display of coupledom that bothers them. Isaacson contextualizes her own energetic work to defeat the amendment with observations of the generational change in attitudes. "For young gay folks," she says, "it's unimaginable to them that we wouldn't have the right to marry now." The film shows black and white images of Isaacson with bigger hair, as she says, "I came from the lesbian feminist movement of the '70s, where we eschewed marriage as a heterosexist institution."

Now, however, the movement posits marriage as a right that must be available to all equally. While "civil unions" or other state-specific legal arrangements grant gay couples access to health car, hospital visits, and parental rights, the argument for marriage insists that a separate category creates second-class citizenship. The film includes moving Senate testimony by Democrat Dianne Wilkerson, who speaks directly to this issue. Describing her ancestors' experiences as slaves (named for their masters, hence, Wilkerson"), she says, "Because I know firsthand that world of almost being equal, I could never vote to send anyone to that place where my family fled."

Brian Lees, Republican senate minority leader, provides Saving Marriage with a particularly compelling arc. One of the authors of the amendment during its first go-round (when it passes), he comes back to the state-mandated second constitutional convention with a change of heart. In the interim, couples have taken licenses and married. Now, Lees says, he asked himself, "Are you willing as a legislator to take away a right that somebody already has?" He is not.

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