Nearly 10 years ago when gay rights activists in Massachusetts initiated a legal challenge to the Commonwealth's unequal marriage laws, I feared they were moving too fast, too soon, risking a backlash for too small a prize. Even if gay couples won the right to marry under our state law, I argued, they would only win a right to second-class marriages since DOMA would deny them all the rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples under federal law. But equality won in Massachusetts, first in court and then in the legislature, which defeated a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. Now that the end of DOMA seems near, or, at least, in view, I want to thank Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and lead attorney Mary Bonauto for proving me wrong and giving me the chance to witness the birth of a fundamental civil right.
In May 2004, the first day gay couples in Massachusetts were allowed to marry, I stood outside Boston City Hall watching a joyful crowd greet joyful couples as they emerged with their marriage licenses (or applications) held high. I'm not sure I've ever seen quite so many people smiling quite so broadly, exercising a basic right long denied, for the very first time. No other marriage, including my own (which I took for granted), had ever seemed so momentous, although as my friend Harvey Silverglate suggested, the extension of marriage rights to gay people was momentous partly because marriage itself is mundane. Here's Harvey's account of the first marriages performed in Cambridge City Hall; I wish opponents of gay marriage could take it to heart:
I had expected to find cheering and jubilation, as well as a few opponents. (There were far fewer than I'd expected). But what I found most moving, oddly, was not the crowds cheering, but, rather, the regularity of it, the rule-of-law, and its equal application to all citizens, in action.
The mayor of Cambridge, a devout Roman Catholic, presided over the ceremonies in City Hall, giving unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and risking the wrath of his own Bishop; Mayor Michael Sullivan did his civic duty, and he did it with good grace and a smile. The City Clerk was there, Margaret Drury, doing her duty as well, well past midnight. And there was a huge presence of police (including a well-armed Tactical Patrol Force or some such outfit), who obviously expected more protesters than showed up.
The police were a bit grim-faced at first, but they lightened up as it became obvious that this was just a huge civic celebration; people were getting married, after all, they were not tossing bombs or robbing banks. The ceremony obviously went against the cultural grain of many police officers, but they were there to protect and to enforce the rule of law. I saw many police smiles by 12:30 a.m.
It was a very moving bit of political theater. At one level I felt I was a witness to history; but on another level it was just the equal application of the law, the rule of law, and the sight of civil servants doing their duty and serving ALL of our citizens in a very ordinary way for an admittedly extraordinary event. However one views the scene, it was very moving. The dual nature of the event was captured by two comments I overheard uttered among the crowd: Comment One: "It's like seeing the Berlin Wall come down." Comment Two: "Well, I guess the flower merchants, the caterers, and the divorce lawyers will be very happy." Both, of course, are true.
Opposition to gay marriage declined in Massachusetts after it was legalized, without inflicting any of the damage predicted by its opponents: Heterosexual couples didn't stop getting married or start getting divorced. Bestiality and polygamy weren't legalized. Family values thrived, as the value of families was confirmed. It's true that civilization has declined since 2004, but I tend to blame that on Wall Street and reality TV.
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