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Gays win huge victory!
Don't believe the hype: gays won a huge victory yesterday

"That’s a great picture!" enthused Dan Hausle, a WHDH-TV Channel 7 reporter, pointing to a digital photograph displayed on a computer screen outside the House chamber last night. It was minutes before midnight, on March 11, and Massachusetts representatives and senators had just passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage yet legalizing civil unions.

The picture was of a lesbian couple, arms wrapped tight around each other, eyes welling up at the news that the so-called "compromise" amendment, sponsored by Senate President Robert Travaglini and House Speaker Tom Finneran, had not met its demise on Beacon Hill last night, as pro-gay-marriage legislators had hoped. The defeat for same-sex couples was the image portrayed by the media coming out of yesterday’s constitutional convention. But while the third day of the convention didn’t yield a solid victory for the pro-gay forces, it did leave them with much to be proud of. And it left them well positioned to eventually defeat attempts to amend the state constitution in order to ban gay marriage.

Just before legislators voted 121 to 77 to push the Travaglini-Finneran amendment through its last hurdle of the evening, Senator Stan Rosenberg of Northampton, who supports civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples, had walked out of the House chamber and over toward the dozens of gay-rights activists singing patriotic songs across the hallway. Rosenberg told the crowd, "Don’t tell anybody, but we had a great day today." He was right, and he echoed that optimism in a press conference organized by MassEquality, the coalition leading the gay-marriage charge, after the final vote: "We were able to push aside and defeat the worse amendments today. We are headed in the right direction. We’re excited, proud, and upbeat."

Even though a crucial vote for full equality for gay and lesbian couples was lost (had the Travaglini-Finneran measure been defeated on the last vote of the evening, it would have ended any attempts to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage for the current legislative session), it was hard to completely dampen the spirit of gay-rights activists. Only five hours earlier, in fact, they had felt wildly elated. At 6:30 p.m., Arline Isaacson, the co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, had stood on a chair and told the pro-gay forces massing outside the House chamber that their legislative strategy had worked. The Travaglini-Finneran amendment, now dubbed the Leadership amendement, had passed by a wide margin of 129 to 69, thereby killing off a more odious measure sponsored by Representative Paul Loscocco of Holliston, which would have banned gay marriage yet allowed the legislature to create civil unions and amend their definition (i.e. what rights and benefits they conferred "from time to time"). The crowd responded to Isaacson's announcement with thunderous applause.

Elizabeth Brooke, an East Hampton resident who wore a homemade T-shirt that read "Let Our Moms Marry" above a picture of her, her long-term same-sex partner, and their four-year-old twins, jumped up and down as Isaacson relayed the good news. In a follow up interview with the Phoenix, Brooke explained that she felt as if the momentum had shifted in favor of gay and lesbian couples over the course of the day. She had come to the State House bright and early with her friend, Tracie Kurth, also from East Hampton, who also wore a homemade T-shirt (hers read "Civil Marriage for All"). They had been in close contact with their state representative, John Scibak of South Hadley, who supports gay marriage. All in all, they believed that things were, as Kurth put it, "going our way."

They didn't look that way at first. State House observers told me that pro-gay forces put their might behind the Leadership amendment because Loscocco had apparently mustered enough votes to pass his amendment, which didn’t guarantee civil unions. Pro-gay forces wanted the Leadership amendment to win its first two votes but fail on the third. The first vote was to substitute the Leadership amendment for a previous amendment proposed by State Senator Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge on the opening day of the convention February 11. By effectively doing that, it killed any other amendments – including the Loscocco proposal.

The second vote was to substitute the Leadership amendment for the original anti-gay amendment proposed by Representative Phil Travis of Rehobeth, which would have limited marriage only to "one man and one woman." The vote for the second time? 136 to 62. In other words, the vote to kill the antigay measure that had caused all the fuss in the first place wasn't even close. So much for Travis's grumbled assertion at the microphone during the first day of the ConCon that if legislators would only vote on his proposal it would easily pass. In terms of legislative support for gay rights, this was a huge victory – one that may be easy to overlook given how confusing the ConCon process was.

The third vote on the measure succeeded 121-77 when anti-gay marriage legislators who had twice voted against the measure, voted for it, while the pro-gay forces who had twice supported it, voted against it. Although it was a defeat, it was one pro-gay strategists told me they expected. And as far as legislative defeats go, it was nothing like what the pro-gay forces expected they'd be dealing with at the start of the ConCon: an easy win for Travis's measure.

There were other wins as well. Legislators who back civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples stuck together and defeated an early motion put forward by Representative John Rogers of Norwood. In the first hour of the convention, Rogers asked that a March 9 letter Travaglini and Finneran had sent out to colleagues urging support of their compromise be read into the public record. During the debate, Barrios, one of three openly gay legislators on the Hill, was skeptical of the reasons that Rogers gave for wanting to have the Travaglini-Finneran letter read into the public record; Rogers said it was for the edification of future generations, while Barrios hinted that it was designed to be "a wolf in sheep’s clothing." Barrios and his colleagues saw the motion as an attempt to hurt gay and lesbian families down the line by providing legal ammunition to those intent on stopping marriage licenses from being issued to gay and lesbian couples on May 17.

The ammunition in question was the section of the letter that asserted that there was a "clear consensus" in the legislature to ban gay marriages. Quoting from that passage and presenting it to the SJC as part of the official record of the constitutional convention, irrespective of any votes taken, could have had a devastating impact. Especially considering that based on yesterday's votes, it's not at all clear that there is a consensus to ban gay marriages. There is a clear consensus, however, to ensure that the same-sex couples who marry after May 17 do not lose their benefits should gay marriage eventually be banned in the Commonwealth. Because the pro-gay forces mobilized, the motion failed to pass 125 to 70.

Of course, the biggest victory was to be found in the activists themselves. Hundreds of people on both sides of the debate showed up at the State House beginning at 7:30 a.m. Those who stayed to the bitter end – once again – were the pro-gay forces. If this debate were to be decided on passion alone, the pro-gay forces would easily win. They parked themselves outside the House chamber and sang, some of them for 16 hours. They must have belted out "God Bless America" and "My Country Tis of Thee" 100 times throughout the day. Yet they never lost their fervor. On the contrary, their voices just got louder and louder.

Which, in many ways, mirrors the escalating strength of the pro-gay-marriage side. No matter how legislators voted last night, these forces are still alive. Observed Joshua Legg, one of the many pro-gay activists who stayed at the State House all day: "We’ve already gotten farther than we ever thought we would. And we’re not going away."

The ConCon will resume March 29. In order to successfully pass, the Leadership amendment needs to get one more majority vote. Before that happens, however, further amendments can be offered. The Loscocoo amendment is expected to resurface. The Travis amendment is probably dead for now. Anything can happen. But it's clear that there is a growing consensus to ensure that same-sex couples are given rights that can't be taken away by voters. And that's a position few pro-gay advocates believed they'd be in last month when the ConCon convened.

Issue Date: March 12, 2004
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