As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, New England feels like a roller coaster hurtling toward equality. On April 6, two more states-- Maine and New Hampshire-- passed marriage equality legislation. The Maine bill has been signed into law by Governor Baldacci; New Hampshire awaits the governor's signature. In addition, this year Connecticut and Vermont joined Massachusetts in recognizing same-sex marriage. Thus, at the five-year anniversary of marriage equality, five New England states have at the very least expressed strong support for a vision of inclusiveness. In addition, Iowa-- smack in the heartland-- allows same-sex couples to marry.
Will we have all five New England states with marriage equality on May 17? No, not yet. New Hampshire's Governor Lynch may yet veto the bill, though there is a strong chance that he will let the bill become law without his signature. In Maine, we face a dreaded referendum. Twice the voters of Maine turned back a gay civil rights law. Those opposed to the same-sex marriage law now have 90 days to collect signatures to put it before the voters. They may fail, as they did at their third attempt to overturn the gay civil rights law. But we can't count on it. When same-sex marriage goes to the ballot it is tough to win, as we saw in California last November.
Admittedly California didn't have New England's secret weapon-- GLAD. GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders) set out last year to bring marriage equality to the six New England states in a campaign called "6 x '12"-- six New England states by 2012. Let's face it: they are way ahead of schedule. And I don't doubt that they have a plan for securing our rights in Maine.
The galloping pace of progress in New England, however, isn't matched by the rest of the country. I got to see this firsthand this winter when I made my annual move from cold New England to tropical Hawaii. Hawaii jumpstarted the marriage equality movement in 1993, when its Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage. Unfortunately, that ruling was followed by the passage of a state constitutional amendment giving the legislature the right to define marriage as the union of opposite-sex couples. In 1998, Hawaii passed a reciprocal beneficiaries law that gives any two unmarried adults, including same-sex couples, a few limited rights primarily associated with joint property ownership.
After treading water for the last decade, Hawaii's LGBT activists breathed new life into their marriage equality movement this year. My spouse and I joined the effort to pass a civil unions bill just as the legislative session began in January. LGBT advocates and their allies won a quick and decisive victory, when the House passed the bill 33-17 by mid-February. Just one vote short of a veto-proof margin, it looked as if the civil unions bill would have an easy ride through the Senate, and be on the governor's desk before the session ended in early May. But politics is never smooth sailing.
With the passage of the bill in the House, the opposition to civil unions-- fundamentalist, Mormon and Catholic churches-- sprung into action. Their political arm, the Hawaii Family Forum, moved quickly to stir up homophobia among traditional church goers and to bring thousands of church members to the Capitol for public demonstrations. One of their primary pieces of propaganda was an article by Brian Camenker of MassResistance called "What Same-Sex Marriage Has Done to Massachusetts." A compilation of half-truths and outright lies about the devastating effects of marriage equality, this article was handed to every Senator and used as the basis for testimony at the 17-hour public hearing held by the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee. As married Massachusetts residents, we had the opportunity to set the record straight, but this piece of hate propaganda continues to circulate on right-wing blogs and websites dedicated to stopping same-sex marriage.
The Church propaganda and hate speech coming out of the Capitol motivated far more people to join the movement to secure equal rights and benefits for Hawaii's same-sex couples and their families. In the last few months, Hawaii has built a diverse and lively movement for LGBT rights. With few resources, activists used Youtube (Check out our "Favorites" at www.youtube.com/courtingequality ) to dog the Senate leadership holding back a vote on the bill, and succeeded in collecting 10,000 petitions in favor of equality. Nonetheless, on May 7, as the legislative session drew to a close, the Senate leadership managed to quash a final effort to pass the bill. Full equality for LGBT citizens was put off again until next legislative session, beginning in January 2010.
For me, my experience in Hawaii, a state that is no doubt the most diverse and respectful of racial and ethnic difference in the US, reminds me that, 40 years after Stonewall, homophobia remains the last safe harbor for bigots around our country. It is easy to become complacent in New England, where LGBT people are, for the most part, accepted and respected and able to count on being treated equally under state law. In Massachusetts and throughout New England, Brian Camenker (see http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=125331&title=mass.-hysteria) is a marginalized nut. In places like Hawaii, he is still being passed off as a legitimate commentator. Far worse, in Arkansas, the president of Walmart, a corporation that practically owns the state, feels comfortable signing a petition to legally prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children.
In New England, we are approaching Five by Five: five New England states with marriage equality at the five-year anniversary of Goodridge. And let's not forget Iowa, where on April 27 the state began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. And there is California, Oregon, Washington, and New Jersey, all states where the rights and benefits of marriage are granted to same-sex couples through civil union or domestic partnership. Adding New York, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. (where the out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples are recognized), over 30 percent of the US population lives in a region that has some form of relationship recognition for its LGBT residents.
But that leaves two-thirds of the country without these fundamental rights. And same-sex couples, married or not, still face discrimination at the federal level, where they are not recognized as spouses. It's been an incredible few weeks, and it would be hard to deny that momentum is on our side, but we have much work to do to ensure that LGBT people, regardless of where they live, are recognized as worthy of the same rights and privileges of all other American citizens.