The Boston Globe’s report on the tenth anniversary of the commencement of marriage equality in Massachusetts doesn’t bring a smile to my face. In fact, my memories of May 17, 2004 are wracked with different sorts of pain.
I was in Massachusetts General Hospital that morning, recovering from gallbladder surgery just days earlier, watching the live coverage of the first day of same-sex marriage on WBZ-TV, Boston’s CBS affiliate. The camera showed gay couples lining up at Boston City Hall Plaza, waiting for apply for marriage licenses. I was scared to death that some deranged gunman would show up and start murdering the couples on television. Thankfully, nothing happened; had gay couples been attacked, Boston would have been, once again, a focal point of national embarrassment thirty years after the city’s notorious anti-busing riots.
The next morning, one day before being discharged, a nurse asked me to walk for a few minutes around the floor to make sure there weren’t any lingering issues. As I walked, I saw a copy of the free Boston Metro newspaper on a desk. I picked it up and saw a photo of a lesbian Brookline couple that had married the previous morning. It was a beautiful picture of the couple kissing and embracing. I couldn’t quite understand how people could deny the love that couple shared, the beauty their union represented.
Yet this memory is also painful, because at the time, I did not support the November 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, that established the right of same-sex couples to marry. I didn’t have a problem with the spirit of the ruling; I had supported the December 1999 Vermont Supreme Court ruling establishing civil unions in that state, and also supported the US Supreme Court’s June 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia warned would open the door for same-sex marriage. Yet the letter of the ruling—and the specific expansion of the term “marriage” to include gay couples—was, shamefully, something I could not accept.
While I disagreed with Goodridge, I was also disgusted by the over-the-top reactions in the right-wing pundit world. Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr blasted the ruling as a “radical-chic fiasco” created by “four politically correct [Supreme Judicial Court] hacks” and viciously attacked the late Republican Governor Paul Cellucci for appointing Margaret Marshall, who authored the ruling, as the Chief Justice of the court. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby was actually even more obscene:
Of course the most radical redefinition of marriage in centuries is going to have deeply disturbing consequences. It may be a decade or two before the full impact is evident, but some of the coming changes we can anticipate right now. In the SJC’s brave new world of gender-neutral marriage, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will no longer communicate to its citizens that the central purpose of marriage is to bind men and women exclusively to each other and to the children that their sexual behavior is apt to produce. It will communicate instead that marriage was created to gratify grown-ups by reinforcing their committed romantic relationships. To be sure, a loving relationship is ideal in any marriage. But that isn’t why every society in history has defined marriage as an institution for linking the sexes. Sooner than you think, it will become improper to speak of unique sex roles in family life. The meanings and status associated with words like ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ will be erased from the law; most likely, the words themselves will be replaced with the unisex ‘spouse,’ just as ‘father’ and ‘mother’ will give way to ‘parent.’ Four Massachusetts justices set off a cataclysm this week. We will feel the aftershocks for a long time.’
(I found the column so disgusting that I stopped reading any subsequent Jacoby pieces on gay rights, a ban I extended to the entirety of Jacoby’s oeuvre after a bizarre June 2011 column comparing end-of-the-world preacher Harold Camping to…Al Gore.)
The rhetoric on Boston’s main right-wing talk radio station, WRKO-AM, was equally abhorrent, with caller after caller demonizing Marshall and implying that legalized bestiality was next. Hatred of gay and lesbian equality also flowed from the lips of Governor Mitt Romney, President George W. Bush, and a sadly diverse roster of religious leaders in Boston, including one who would denounce future Governor Deval Patrick when Patrick proclaimed his support for marriage equality at the start of his campaign for the Corner Office.
It sickens me to acknowledge this today, but it was not until 2007 that I finally changed my mind on marriage equality, horrified by the over-the-edge whining of anti-gay-marriage Massachusetts activists after the final failure of an effort to put a ban on marriage equality into the state constitution. At the time, I concluded that my civil-unions-not-marriage-equality position was a form of unconscious homophobia: You can get some of my rights, but not all of ‘em!
It rankles the hell out of me that I did not immediately recognize the moral argument in favor of marriage equality right from the outset, and in essence stood alongside the enemies of equality from late-2003 until 2007. It’s difficult to look back and realize that I was hung up on the word “marriage,” not having the wisdom to realize that “marriage” was about love, not about the genders of those who share that love.
…A lot of young people, people in their twenties, don’t even remember that we didn’t have gay marriage.
I’m jealous of those young people. I’m jealous of those who will grow up in future generations, when unconscious homophobia will hopefully be less of an issue. I look back now and realize that I betrayed every gay or lesbian person I’ve ever met by rejecting marriage equality during that time.
I’m sorry for not understanding a decade ago, for not challenging the ideology of injustice, for muffling my ears to the cries for equality. I understand now, and I thank all of those who worked tirelessly for marriage equality in Massachusetts, blazing a trail for equality in seventeen US states so far. They proved that justice and logic can defeat money and power. They proved that true morality can defeat false morality. They proved that impossible tasks can be accomplished with irresistible strength. They established a template that all who believe in making a better world real can follow.
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