As we approach the fourth anniversary of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the Supreme Judicial Court decision that granted marriage equality to same-sex couples in Massachusetts, I find myself reflecting on the profound impact of this decision in my life. Before November 18, 2003, I had not considered marriage as anything more than an outdated, sexist institution. With the energy of the spurned outsider, I rejected marriage and all its trappings. I had no expectation that, in my life time, same-sex couples would be allowed to participate in this exclusively heterosexual ritual.
So it is with utter surprise that I find that the last two and a half years of my life have been "all marriage, all the time": first writing Courting Equality: A Documentary History of America’s First Legal Same-Sex Marriages—and then, over the last six months, talking about marriage equality to audiences from Portland, Maine, to Blue Ridge, Georgia. What’s clear to me, from all these conversations, is that the marriage equality movement is changing the landscape for same-sex couples and their families across America.
In Massachusetts, it was the 2004 Constitutional Convention that opened my eyes to the profound significance of opening the central institution of our society to same-sex couples. As the legislature debated the meaning of marriage—and whether or not families headed by same-sex couples deserved the same rights as those headed by heterosexuals—I could feel the sea change that was taking place. By having to consider the exclusion of same-sex couples from an institution that gave so much meaning to their lives, legislators had to grapple with the reality that they had long accepted the marginalization of LGBT people. Forced to examine their homophobia in the context of the Constitutional values of equality and liberty they are sworn to uphold, many legislators came to realize, in the words of State Senator Diane Wilkerson, they could not consign anyone to "that world of almost being equal."
The American ideal of equality is far from being a reality, but it is a principle that energizes us and often brings out the best in us as we struggle to bring our ideals and our messy world into better alignment. Since May I’ve felt that desire wherever we’ve gone to talk about marriage equality. In Blue Ridge, Georgia, about 75 members of the Church of the Disciples, almost all straight, gathered to hear us speak at the local community arts center. Following our talk, in this small Georgia community (hardly the center of LGBT civil rights), dozens of people asked us to sign books for their LGBT sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, friends and neighbors. They wanted to show their support—and share the message of hope from Massachusetts—with the LGBT people they loved. It was one more step on the way to taking a more active leadership role in ending discrimination against LGBT people.
In Asheville, North Carolina, marriage equality divided the community in the summer of 2005. Laurel Scherer and Virginia Balfour came to Massachusetts to marry, and then returned to Asheville, where they announced their marriage in the Asheville Citizen-Times. After the announcement appeared, a local ski resort promptly cancelled its relationship with Laurel, who had been working there as a photographer. When the LGBT community protested this unfair treatment, local churches and business owners paid for two full pages in the Citizen-Times to denounce homosexuality and the very idea that businesses should be prevented from discriminating against "sodomites."
Two years later, Asheville’s progressive church leadership hosted a luncheon for us with two-dozen community and church leaders committed to LGBT equality in employment and marriage. Several ministers have pledged to refrain from performing marriages until all couples—straight or gay—are allowed to receive civil marriage licenses. Civil rights groups are embracing LGBT equality as part of their agenda. Discrimination against LGBT people is no longer a dirty little secret, overlooked in the fight for justice. Over sixty people came out to hear us discuss marriage equality at the local bookstore—and every local paper in Asheville, from the Citizen-Times to the alternative weeklies carried a story about Courting Equality. Clearly, our state’s triumph was changing the conversation hundreds of miles away.
Marriage may be a conservative institution—one that some LGBT people feel very uncomfortable embracing. But equality is something we all strive to achieve. And, in my lifetime, I have never seen an issue that has moved the conversation about LGBT equality forward as rapidly as this one. As Evan Wolfson, the visionary leader of the marriage equality movement, has said, marriage provides "a vocabulary in which nongay people talk about the larger important questions—questions of love and commitment and dedication and self-sacrifice and family, but also equality and participation and connectedness... In claiming that vocabulary we make it easier for nongay people to understand who we are."
Karen Kahn is the co-author, with Patricia Gozemba and photographer Marilyn Humphries, of Courting Equality: A Documentary History of America’s First Legal Same-Sex Marriages. With 108 color photographs, Courting Equality chronicles how the Massachusetts LGBT community won the battle for equal marriage.