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To have and to hold
Seven couples who may just change the world: Meet the plaintiffs in Goodridge et al.

Forum: Tell us what you think about same-sex marriage

IT’S BEEN A WEEK of heavy anticipation, to say the least. On Monday, when the state Supreme Judicial Court was expected to issue its ruling in Goodridge et al. v. Department of Public Health, millions of people across the country turned their attention toward Massachusetts. As we all know by now, the SJC missed its self-imposed deadline — which it occasionally does, particularly with cases like this one that deal controversial social issues. This landmark lawsuit, in which seven same-sex couples have petitioned the state for the right to wed, could make the Bay State the first in the country to recognize marriages of gay and lesbian couples. So there’s a lot at stake — not just for the seven plaintiff couples, but for the tens of thousands of gay and lesbian couples around the nation who will join the Commonwealth’s gay and lesbian citizens in the joy of victory or the disappointment of defeat.

On March 4, the SJC held oral arguments in the case. Since then, the seven plaintiff couples have existed in a sort of limbo. They have gone about their business at work and at home. They have tended to their children. Some have taken vacations. Still, the prospect of the SJC’s decision always hovers in the backs of their minds. As you read this, the SJC may have already issued its much-anticipated ruling. Or not. Either way, the plaintiff couples remain committed to their families. Here are their stories.

Yin and yang

Heidi Norton and Gina Smith concede that they have very different demeanors. Norton, 38, the law-program director at Northampton’s Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, likes things to be neat, orderly, in their place. Smith, 38, who also works at the center, thrives on chaos. As she puts it, "I’m messy, and Heidi is supremely organized."

But when the two first met 13 years ago, Norton was the one who seemed disorganized. Then again, it happened to be an unusually tumultuous time. It was October 1990, and Norton was studying public-interest law at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC, when she received the devastating news that her brother had committed suicide. "My life had been turned upside down," she recalls. Within days of her brother’s funeral, she was introduced to Smith — and found solace in Smith’s generosity. She even dared to let down her guard. "I felt very safe talking to her," Norton explains, "and, at that moment, nothing felt safe."

This initial comfort soon gave way to bona fide security. On July 4, 1992, Smith popped the big question. Though she did insist on one condition: the two, she proposed, must live together for 12 months before formalizing their union. Why? "Because our housekeeping styles are so different," she says, somewhat sheepishly.

"I have my surroundings neat," Norton adds. Her partner, by contrast, has a penchant for hording gadgets, papers, even storage boxes.

Evidently, as the adage goes, opposites attract. After surviving that probationary year, in April 1993, the couple held a commitment celebration. It was a turning point, and, for the longest time, it seemed enough — until their son Avery, now six, arrived. The things they had to do to prepare for his birth — and that of his brother, Quinn, now three — opened their eyes to all they’re missing because they cannot marry. First, there was the paperwork — the health-care proxies, the powers of attorney, the emergency-guardianship documents. Next, there was the second-parent-adoption process, which enables gays and lesbians to adopt a partner’s biological children. For them, filling out these applications was just another reminder of their differences.

"It felt like a mismatched experience," Norton says. They adore their boys. Yet they have to complete forms that ask questions like, "Have there been circumstances where the child has formed a relationship with the adult?" "It was such a strange feeling to see how our commitment wasn’t reflected in the paperwork," she adds.

Today, they’re routinely reminded of their special status. In Northampton, where they live, they are treated with respect. Often, though, straight friends will make reference to little things — to "in-laws" or to joint-tax forms — that hammer home the disparities for them. For example, in one conversation, a married couple discussed their children’s futures should either of them pass away. Yet the couple saw no need for a will, or any other financial planning, which was essential for Smith and Norton. Says Norton, "They felt so protected by their marital rights that they didn’t take these simple, precautionary steps, which we, by definition, have to do."

When the two joined the marriage lawsuit in 2001, they explained the situation to Avery, then four. "I said, ‘Mommy and Mom are committed to each other as if we’re married,’" Norton remembers. "‘But there’s a thing called the law, and it doesn’t allow us to marry. So we’re trying to change the law.’" As the case has made its way through the courts, the boys have come to understand that their moms are married "in the sense that we’ll stick together," says Norton. Still, as the SJC decision looms, the boys are getting more and more excited about the prospect of a wedding — especially the wedding cake.

Even if Norton and Smith lose their case, their sons can rest assured that nothing will change. Well, almost nothing. Says Norton, "We’ve decided that, in any event, we’re going to have cake."


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Issue Date: July 18 - 24, 2003
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