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Same-sex banns in Boston?
The world shifted in the month between the February and March ConCons: Thousands of gay couples got married. How has it impacted the Massachusetts debate?

WHAT A DIFFERENCE 30 days makes.

When a majority of Massachusetts representatives and senators approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage but establishing civil unions at the March 11 ConCon, it signaled a major paradigm shift on Beacon Hill. Last month, a similar measure failed by 10 votes. Last week, it passed by the easy margin of 121 to 77. Lawmakers have become so comfortable with the idea of enacting civil unions statewide — an idea seen as radical just 10 months ago, as Marblehead representative Doug Petersen pointed out during his speech to the ConCon — that legislators killed Rehoboth representative Phil Travis’s original amendment, which would have barred any legal recognition for gay relationships, by a whopping 136 to 62. At last month’s ConCon, don’t forget, Travis grumbled from the podium that if Senate president Robert Travaglini would only call for a vote on his amendment, it would easily pass.

What accounts for the change? And what might it mean for the chances of halting any anti-gay-marriage amendment from eventually passing when the ConCon reconvenes March 29? (The measure approved by lawmakers last week still needs to get one more majority vote before official passage in the current legislative session.)

Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, attributes much of the shift to the organization of local activists since the ConCon first convened on February 11. MassEquality, the coalition leading the gay-marriage charge, spent 30 days figuring out the best legislative strategy to advance its goals on March 11. It spent just as much time galvanizing the masses in new lobbying efforts. During the March 2 presidential primary, for instance, 600 people affiliated with MassEquality fanned out at polling places in more than 40 legislative districts statewide to collect 8000 postcards, which were delivered to key legislators last week. Because of these efforts, Isaacson notes, "I do see subtle but significant changes in our favor. Many legislators are finding it harder and harder to justify taking legal protections away from our families."

But there’s been something else at work, too. Since February 12, the second day of the Massachusetts ConCon, lesbian and gay couples have been getting married. And the sky hasn’t fallen. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom started it all late in the afternoon of February 12, when he married Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first nationwide organization for lesbians. The couple have been together for 51 years. As Newsom explained to Time, he wanted simply to show that same-sex marriages could be done. "Put a human face on it," he said. "Let’s not talk about it in theory." That first wedding kicked off a frenzy when thousands more same-sex couples lined up outside San Francisco City Hall to get married as well. And it was that human face — the televised images of couples waiting all night in the pouring rain to be wed — that set off something of a cultural tsunami that has yet to settle down. (All told, the city of San Francisco married 4161 same-sex couples between February 12 and March 11, when the California Supreme Court ordered a halt to the ceremonies until it could rule on whether they were legal under the California Constitution.)

Since Newsom’s act of civil disobedience in defiance of the California law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, thousands of gay and lesbian couples have tied the knot in big cities and small hamlets across the country. Dozens of mainstream politicians, such as Chicago mayor Richard Daley and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, have voiced approval for issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian partners. The first to follow Newsom’s lead was Victoria Dunlap, the clerk of Sandoval County, New Mexico, who granted marriage licenses to 26 same-sex couples last month before the state’s attorney general issued an opinion declaring the licenses "invalid under state law." On February 27, Jason West, mayor of the village of New Paltz, New York, took up the cause by conducting marriages for 25 same-sex couples in a widely publicized ceremony in a park outside the Village Hall. Over on the West Coast, the movement scored a big victory in Portland, Oregon, where feisty county commissioners decided to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples earlier this month. And just three days before the Massachusetts ConCon reconvened last week, officials in Asbury Park, New Jersey, quietly accepted the state’s first same-sex marriage application.

With gay unions popping up even in unlikely places, gay-rights advocates and their political allies are pushing the envelope further. In Seattle, the Stranger, the city’s alternative newspaper, published a call to arms in its March 4 issue, asking someone — anyone! — in the local gay community to speak out against county officials’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples for fear it would violate state law. The following day, the newspaper’s editor, Dan Savage, who is also gay, showed up at the office of King County executive Ron Sims, who has authority over the licenses in Seattle. In an act of protest, Savage and Stranger reporter Amy Jenniges, who is a lesbian, obtained a marriage license to highlight, in Savage’s words, "the absurdity of our state’s marriage laws." (Jenniges first tried to get a license for herself and her partner. When she was turned down, she and Savage then applied for a license, even though, as Savage noted in a March 11 column about the move, he made it clear to officials that he and Jenniges had no intention of living as a married couple: "So I asked if Amy and I could have one — even though I’m gay and live with my boyfriend, and Amy’s a lesbian and lives with her girlfriend. We emphasized to the clerk and her manager that Amy and I don’t live together, we don’t love each other, we don’t plan to have kids together, and we’re going to go on living and sleeping with our same-sex partners after we get married. So could we still get a marriage license? ‘Sure,’ the license-department manager said, ‘If you’ve got $54, you can have a marriage license.’")

The pressure eventually led six same-sex couples to file a March 8 lawsuit against Washington State. Similarly, in New York, small-town officials have become unexpected champions for the cause. Last Friday, Nyack mayor John Shields, who is gay, sued the state for denying him a license to marry his partner on March 4. Not only that, but Ithaca mayor Carolyn Peterson announced that the city would accept marriage applications from gay and lesbian couples in order to force the issue into the courts. And New Paltz’s West has vowed to keep up the fight despite facing 19 criminal charges of solemnizing marriages without a license.

By the time Bay State legislators gathered for the third day of a constitutional convention last week, the national landscape had shifted dramatically. In San Francisco alone, more than 4100 lesbian and gay couples had been married, including Rosie O’Donnell and her partner, Kelli Carpenter, who flew in from New York for a quickie ceremony. And the issue was injected forcefully into this year’s presidential race on February 24, when President Bush called for an amendment to the US Constitution banning such marriages and US Senator John Kerry, on February 26, called for an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution doing the same, even as he denounced Bush’s move at the federal level.

"The Zeitgeist has been transformed by these things," observes Sue Hyde, the field organizer of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), and a veteran advocate from Cambridge. "Every day," she says, "the atmosphere is changing."

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Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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