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Fighting on several fronts (continued)

WHATEVER LEGISLATORS think about civil marriage, the SJC ruling makes it clear that a civil-union solution would not be constitutionally acceptable. According to Chief Justice Margaret Marshall’s opinion, written on behalf of the four-justice majority, "Barring an individual from the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution." Even if the legislature were to pass a measure authorizing something like civil unions in the next six months, gay-rights advocates don’t see the move as a threat to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. "We know that civil union is not civil marriage by another name," explains the FTMMass’s Friedes. Such a law, he adds, "would not satisfy the court."

Advocates cannot say the same for the anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment, however. For months, proponents of the amendment — or H 3190, as it’s known — have waged an intense lobbying effort on Beacon Hill. The MCC has issued one proclamation after another from its leader, Boston archbishop Sean O’Malley, who has reinforced the Catholic Church’s stalwart opposition to same-sex marriage. Letters signed by the Massachusetts bishops have been read from the pulpit; they’ve been sent to legislators. And dozens of dutiful parishioners have flooded the Hill with e-mails and phone calls favoring H 3190. In some districts, the Church has had an effect. At a November 13 meeting with the MGLPC’s Conley, Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, a freshman Democrat from Jamaica Plain, who has sponsored the domestic-partnership bill currently pending on the Hill and who has stated that he "absolutely" supports civil unions, agonized over the fact that his parish priest had published his name in the Sunday bulletin. "People are listening," he told Conley, with a hint of helplessness. "They’re calling my office and stopping me on the street."

The Massachusetts Family Institute has also galvanized its base through public appeals. Last October, it hosted a daylong religious forum in Waltham dubbed the "Summit in October To Save Marriage" — a/k/a SOS Marriage. And the MFI’s Ron Crews and public-policy director, Evelyn Reilly, have kept a daily schedule at the State House ever since. They’ve presented data showing that children raised in same-sex households are at greater risk of suffering from "gender-identity confusion." They’ve even trotted out "former" homosexuals to testify on "the journey of healing and self-discovery," as one ex-lesbian put it at an April 30 hearing on H 3190. Such testimony, says Crews, refutes the "so-called homosexual point of view that ‘we are who we are, and therefore we have to be dealt with as we are.’ " What MFI is trying to do, he explains, is give legislators "visible proof" that gay men and lesbians can change their sexual orientation. "Homosexuality is not a sound-bite issue," he says, "but the fact is that some people have changed."

To gay-rights advocates, tactics such as these are irrelevant to the same-sex-marriage debate — which centers on the fact that one population group is excluded from the benefits that flow from secular marriage. When Isaacson first heard that the MFI was parading ex-gays before legislators, she says, "I thought we advocates should introduce ourselves as ‘ex-heterosexuals’ to highlight the silliness of it all." She continues, "It’s an example of the other side avoiding the facts and just trying to scare people."

Crews, for his part, dismisses such characterizations as "arrogant." He opposes same-sex marriage, he says, "but I’m not opposed to anyone." For his group, the battle is about protecting "marriage as it’s always been defined." He adds, "I’m for traditional marriage because the institution has served us well generation over generation."

In any event, it’s safe to say that the tactics that the MFI, MCC, and company have used thus far represent the tip of the iceberg. If gay-rights advocates have learned anything from battles over same-sex marriage in other states, it’s never to underestimate the other side. In Hawaii in 1993, when plaintiffs in a gay-marriage lawsuit won a favorable ruling from the Hawaii Supreme Court, opponents flooded the state with a well-financed campaign to amend its Constitution. At the time, says Evan Wolfson, who heads the Washington, DC–based Freedom To Marry advocacy group (a partner organization of FTMMass) and who served as co-counsel in the landmark Hawaii lawsuit, "even the most adamant opponents started professing that some protections [should] be granted to gay couples." The Christian Coalition and other right-wing organizations began lobbying for legislation that would give gay couples something like Vermont-style civil unions. But then, Hawaii passed a constitutional amendment. And gay-marriage opponents, Wolfson says, wiggled away from the civil-union bill. "Opponents will tell legislators one thing, then turn around and attack gays on any level," he says.

More often than not, they resort to playing on the public’s fears and prejudices. They push buttons by warning of the "slippery slope" that comes with legalizing gay marriage — implying that it will end with the union of, say, three men and a dog. "No one [on the right] talks about equal-marriage rights," says Judith Schaeffer, the deputy legal director of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, based in Washington, DC. Schaeffer, who helped write an amicus curiae brief for the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case, has tracked the right’s strategy on this issue nationwide. "It’s a campaign of falsehoods, misinformation, and fear-mongering," she says.

When it comes to legislators, it’s a campaign of intimidation as well. In Vermont in 2000, after the state’s Supreme Court ruled that gay couples must receive benefits associated with civil marriage, lawmakers endured a torrent of "hate mail, phone calls, vicious stuff that was unrelenting," according to the Rutland Herald’s David Moats, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his editorial-page coverage of the civil-union debate. National Christian radio stations broadcast the phone numbers of Vermont politicians over the air. The office of then-governor Howard Dean fielded thousands of vitriolic calls per day.

Activists from radical-right groups flocked to Vermont. Chief among them was Randall Terry, the Operation Rescue president who has vowed to parachute into Massachusetts. He set up shop in a Montpelier storefront, where he organized protests and put on a mock trial of the state’s Supreme Court. "He was so menacing," says Moats, who has chronicled this period in a soon-to-be-released book, Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage (Harcourt). "Even the Catholic Church issued a statement saying, ‘We have nothing to do with him.’ " Terry and other fundamentalist clergy became known as the "God Squad" at the State House, where the group preached deliverance. They cornered legislators, or stared them down. Terry would sit in hearings and, Moats says, "make a show of praying."

Although this style backfired with many legislators on the fence, it was undoubtedly a force to reckon with. Moats — and many observers — predicts that same-sex-marriage opponents will bear down even harder on the legislature in Massachusetts, where the highest court has gone further to affirm equal marriage rights for gay couples than has happened anywhere else. Clearly, there are Bay State legislators who unequivocally support same-sex marriage. But for the vast majority — for those comfortable with civil unions — the pressure may prove too great to bear. Now that Governor Mitt Romney has declared his intention to push for H 3190 — and has pledged to find Republicans to oust Democrats from office next year — the reaction among legislators may simply be to hide. As the MGLPC’s Conley says, "The pressure to pass H 3190 has just increased tenfold. All heck is about to break loose" on Beacon Hill.

GAY-MARRIAGE proponents in Massachusetts have an advantage not enjoyed by their counterparts in the states previously at the center of the gay-marriage maelstrom: the passage of time. Advocates here are advancing an agenda first laid out 10 years ago by their counterparts in Hawaii — back when the country, as Wolfson puts it, "was learning to put ‘gay’ and ‘America’ in the same sentence." And while the victory in Vermont may seem like only yesterday, three years have passed. Both of these battles took place before Will and Grace hit prime-time TV. Before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy changed fashion sense for the average Joe. Before the Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada legalized gay marriage.

"With time," observes Friedes, "comes familiarity." And this, in turn, breeds acceptance. The latest polling data shows that public attitudes toward gay marriage are consistently improving. According to a Boston Globe/WBZ poll released on November 23, half of all Bay State voters said they agree with the SJC ruling, as compared to 38 percent who do not. Those results come on the heels of an October poll funded by the FTMMass, which found 59 percent of voters support same-sex marriage. Says Friedes, "This is our first struggle where a majority of the electorate supports civil-marriage rights for gay couples. It’s the one thing different from the past."

Of course, passive acceptance of a cause isn’t the same as active involvement in it — as recently became apparent at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Attleboro. On a damp, cold evening in November — just two days after the SJC’s ruling — FTMMass organizing director Robyn Maguire trekked down to the South Shore to stir up the masses. Or, at least, to rouse about two dozen middle-aged and elderly parishioners of the Immanuel Lutheran Church "Reconciling in Christ" congregation, which welcomes gay men and lesbians. After a glowing introduction from the parish president, Maguire assumed center stage beside a white board decorated with a smiley face and a bold "Welcome!" Composed, she spoke in a slow, deliberate tone. She joked that the FTMMass had, for all intents and purposes, "accomplished our mission" — by which she meant equal marriage rights for gay couples. But she warned the crowd not to bask in the glow of this victory yet.

"How many of you have contacted your legislators on this?" she asked, prompting one woman, dressed in a white T-shirt emblazoned with a giant cross on it, to raise her hand high. Another woman, who wore the same shirt, slowly lifted her hand, as if not quite sure.

Evidently, even the friendliest audience can resist the call to action for the cause. For all the challenges that gay-rights advocates now face — be it debunking the myth that civil union is a euphemism for civil marriage, or convincing legislators on the fence that they can do the right thing without losing office — the ability to stir the silent majority seems most critical. After all, every DOMA-style ballot initiative submitted to voters nationwide has won — even in states with well-organized gay communities, such as California. The reason? These questions are guaranteed to bring out the die-hard opposition. But many of those who support same-sex marriage — especially among the straight set — don’t feel nearly as passionately about the issue.

Norma Shapiro, an ACLU lobbyist currently making the State House rounds to push for same-sex civil marriage, explains that the existing polling data have been collected in the absence of a ballot-initiative campaign, which can dramatically change voting patterns. "Who is galvanized to vote makes a huge difference," she says. "We cannot assume the polling represents what a vote [on an amendment] would be."

Even the other side is heartened by the stunning record of success when it comes to DOMA-type ballot initiatives. Massachusetts would probably be no different because, Crews asserts, "people would have a chance to rise up and say, ‘We want sanity back to our state law.’"

Back in Attleboro, the FTMMass’s Maguire spent 15 minutes providing a primer on grassroots activism to the parishioners at Immanuel Lutheran. As she continued — laying out steps that supporters must take to defeat H 3190 and preserve the right to legal marriage for same-sex couples — her voice escalated. She punctuated her words with soft air punches. By the time she delivered the money line — railing against the "evil, evil amendment" that supporters "absolutely have to kill on February 11" — audience members were sitting up straight in their chairs.

Then Maguire asked who was going to leave and call their legislators "tonight." And this time, not one person raised a hand. As members glanced around at each other, one diminutive, white-haired woman somewhat sheepishly called out: "How about tomorrow?"

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: December 5 - 11, 2003
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