Marriage Equality Gets the Seven-Year Itch
May 17, 2011
It was seven years ago today that the first legal same-sex marriages began in Massachusetts. We asked three of our authors how they think things have changed in seven years, and what challenges still lie ahead.
We are also celebrating the anniversary on our Facebook page, where you can see an album of photos from Courting Equality: A Documentary History of America's First Legal Same-Sex Marriages.
Amie Klempnauer Miller is the author of She Looks Just Like You: A Memoir of (Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood. She is a frequent speaker about gay and lesbian families, and her writing has appeared on Salon, in Brain, Child and Greater Good magazines, and elsewhere. Miller works as a development consultant to the public media industry and lives with her partner and daughter in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage seven years ago and what has changed? Well, let me point out that the marriage rate nationwide has declined – a-ha! – perhaps same-sex marriage does undermine heterosexual marriage after all. But the divorce rate nationwide has also declined – so maybe same-sex marriage actually strengthens heterosexual unions. Or, here’s a thought, maybe it does neither.
Meanwhile, here in the heartland, we’re having none of it. Six years and 49 weeks after Massachusetts’ action, some Minnesota legislators introduced a bill to define marriage as between one man and one woman in the state Constitution. The bill has been moving quickly through legislative committees and, despite the fact that Minnesota already denies marriage to same-sex couples, it will likely go to the popular vote in the 2012 election. The bill’s advocates are positioning it in the usual ways, of course: giving “the people” the chance for a “dialogue”; protecting children; upholding the will of God. What is clear is that the “dialogue,” when it happens, is likely to play out heavily in the media, to cost millions of dollars, to pit different communities against each other, and to take up a whole lot of time and energy that could be put into other things like – oh, I don’t know – solving the budget deficit, planting gardens, playing with our kids.
Meanwhile, the real dialogue continues, mostly quietly, in communities across our state and the nation. Since Massachusetts (and Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa and Washington, DC) legalized same-sex marriage, more gay and lesbian couples across the nation have become willing to be honest about who they are. In Massachusetts – but also in places like Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky –same-sex couples are increasingly admitting that they are, in fact, not just roommates.
Maybe this is what the supporters of the Minnesota amendment fear most: that people across the country will increasingly discover that gay men and lesbians really are pretty much like everyone else. And there’s a reason for their fear. Three national polls have now shown that more than half of Americans think that gay men and lesbians should have equal marriage rights. This shift is not occurring only among the young and the liberal, but across religious and demographic groups (though, admittedly, more slowly in some places than others). The primary driver is familiarity. As more people have realized that they are related to, live near, work and volunteer with gay men and lesbians, they have also realized that gay men and lesbians are really just people who deserve to be treated fairly.
That, more than anything, is what has changed since the decision in Massachusetts.
Author photo by Terry Gydesen.
Nancy D. Polikoff is the author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. She is professor of law at American University. You can read her blog at http://beyondstraightandgaymarriage.blogspot.com/.
I won’t lie. I never imagined when the weddings began in Massachusetts seven years ago that in 2011 we would have 5 states and the District of Columbia permitting same-sex marriage, at least two other states recognizing marriages performed where allowed, and 8 more allowing (or about to allow) civil unions or comprehensive domestic partnership (the two most recent civil union statutes, Hawaii and Delaware, go into effect January 1, 2012). Nor could I have imagined that one of the lawyers most responsible for the travesty that resulted in the Supreme Court “selecting” George Bush to be President in 2000 would become a leading advocate of marriage equality.
What’s less surprising, however, is the downside of obtaining access to state recognition. Although the fight for marriage equality has been framed as obtaining the choice to marry, the predictable consequence of having that choice is that the state feels justified in maintaining and even solidifying the bright line between those who marry and everyone else. The choice to marry isn’t much a choice if marriage is the only way to protect a family’s financial and emotional well being.
I’m particularly disturbed about this bright line when it comes to raising children. Right now a child born to a lesbian couple in Massachusetts has two mothers if the couple is married and one mother if the couple is not. Although second parent adoption is available, that is an expensive and time consuming process. For more than 40 years it’s been a basic tenet of family law that a child should not suffer because her parents did not marry. Yet that is precisely what happens in Massachusetts. A child can lose access to financial support and to the love and care of a nonbiological mother, solely because her parents did not marry.
At this point the solution needs to come from the legislature. Here in the District of Columbia we have a statute that says when two people plan for a child together and intend to parent together, and when conception takes place through donor insemination, then they are both parents. The law is gender neutral and marital status neutral. The names of the two intended parents appear on the child’s birth certificate. Although same-sex couples can marry in the District of Columbia, they do not have to marry to give their child two legal parents from birth.
I hope Massachusetts follows our lead.
Author photo by Lauren R. Taylor.
Karen Kahn is co-author, with Pat Gozemba, of Courting Equality: A Documentary History of America's First Legal Same-Sex Marriages. The former editor of Sojourner: The Women's Forum, she also edited Frontline Feminism: Essays from Sojourner's First Twenty Years. Kahn and Patricia Gozemba got married in September 2005; they live in Salem, Massachusetts.
Karen Kahn (l) with Pat Gozemba.
Is marriage equality subject to the seven-year itch? Are we losing interest in it? From all the evidence, it looks to me that, in Massachusetts at least, our commitment to marriage equality remains strong. In fact, in our home state, marriage of same-sex couples has become so ordinary that when you hear that someone is about to tie the knot, you can make no assumptions about the gender of the bride/groom to be.
About the only conflict there seems to be around same-sex couples marrying in Massachusetts is what to call your same-sex spouse. Though men have become quite comfortable with “husband,” two professors at Salem State University find that women are still working out the linguistic issues. For many old-time feminists, “wife” just carries too much baggage, “partner” doesn’t infer marriage, and “spouse” sounds a bit legalistic. But give us another seven years, and I’m sure we’ll find the right vocabulary!
Of course, same-sex couples in Massachusetts still face discrimination, which is why GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto and the Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley are challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Those suits, which argue that DOMA is unconstitutional because it forces states to treat same-sex couples differently than heterosexual couples, got a big boost this spring when the Obama administration announced that it would not defend DOMA in court.
This was great news for same-sex families who currently are denied thousands of federal marriage benefits, including Social Security survivor benefits, the right to file joint tax returns, and the right to sponsor citizenship for foreign same-sex partners. It affirmed the administration’s commitment to supporting LGBT equality, and put into sharp relief the country’s shift in attitude since 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law. Though there remains strong opposition in many parts of the country, the latest national Washington Post-ABC poll shows a majority of Americans (53 percent) now support gay marriage. That’s up from 36 percent just five years ago.
That shift in public opinion is in no small part due to the “reality TV show” now playing in four New England states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont), Iowa, and the District of Columbia, all of which grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As thousands of same-sex couples have married, none of the dire predictions by the National Organization for Marriage and other right-wing evangelicals such as Pat Robertson and Chuck Colson have come true. Though some want to blame Katrina, the Great Recession, the Japanese quake/tsunami, and this year’s tornado season on the acceptance of same-sex families, most Americans find that treating people equally aligns with their most cherished values.
Of course that doesn’t mean that the road to marriage equality has been without obstacles. There were the painful setbacks in California (2008) and Maine (2009), when these states passed ballot measures that blocked previous decisions to grant same-sex couples marriage licenses. Proposition 8 in California was especially disheartening since it took away rights granted by the state’s high court, and ended a flood of same-sex marriages that had begun the previous spring. In November 2010, the anti-marriage equality movement focused on Iowa, where they convinced voters to oust three Supreme Court justices who had ruled in favor of marriage equality the previous year. New York, Rhode Island, and Maryland have all come close to passing marriage equality legislation but all have fallen short.
Nonetheless, as Massachusetts abolitionist Theodore Parker said, “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” In the latest round of victories, Hawaii, Illinois, and Delaware have all passed civil union bills in their current legislative sessions. Though these laws fall short of full marriage equality, they offer same-sex couples and their children significant social and economic benefits. Additionally, in a show of bipartisan support, New York marriage equality activists have raised millions of dollars from Wall Street Republicans, enlisting their support, along with that of Mayor Bloomberg, to pressure the state’s Republican-led Senate to stop blocking marriage equality legislation. Finally, just this week, Freedom to Marry announced that Caroline Kennedy had become the 100,000 signer of a petition asking President Obama to explicitly state his support for marriage equality.
Indeed one hardly needs a poll to know that we are experiencing a seismic shift in attitudes toward LGBT people. In 2004, when same-sex couples first married in Massachusetts, Vermont was the only other state where equal rights and benefits were available to same-sex couples (through civil unions). Today, 13 states and the District of Columbia–or more than one-quarter of the United States of America—recognize same-sex couples and their families. That is astounding progress in a nation that is deeply divided on a great many social and political issues. In fact, the movement for marriage equality offers hope that our nation will find its way back to a vision of the future that truly values equality and justice for all.
Author photo by Marilyn Humphries.