Katy Burns: Gay marriage: an American success story
In 2003, no Americans – zero percent of us – lived in a U. S. jurisdiction where gay people were allowed to wed.
At the end of 2013 – just 10 years later – fully 38 percent of us live in places where marriage equality is legal and even celebrated.
And at least as I write this, those places include Utah, one of the most conservative states in the union. Now in Utah’s case, it was a federal judge who threw open the doors to the marriage license bureaus. It’s very possible that the court’s decision will be stayed in the coming days, but until then wedding bells for same-sex couples will continue to ring in Salt Lake City, as they now are in many other U.S. jurisdictions.
Some folks think we’ve reached a tipping point, that gay marriage is inevitable throughout the nation. I don’t know if they’re right, but certainly much of the country is on board with the concept. It’s remarkable.
Gay marriage. Same-sex marriage. Marriage equality. Whatever you call it, it’s a concept virtually unheard of in most parts of our country and even the world maybe 30 years ago.
Gay people themselves were only vaguely on the public radar then in most places. But they were beginning to make their presence known to straight Americans as more and more stepped out of the stifling closets they’d been hiding in. And they revealed themselves to be our sisters, brothers, uncles and aunts, parents and children. They’re teachers, plumbers, shop owners, firefighters, and accountants. Soldiers. Preachers. Even politicians.
At the same time, most of us generally have come to understand that sexuality isn’t really some impulsive “lifestyle choice” but a core part of who a person just is. Just like red hair and left-handedness – both attributes which themselves, interestingly, have throughout much of human history also been viewed with fear and suspicion.
But even as gay people began being visible, it was only in 1993 that the idea of gay marriage entered the national political dialogue when the Supreme Court of Hawaii came close to ruling that it had to be permitted. The issue in Hawaii was ultimately resolved legislatively, but the fact that same-sex marriage might have been adopted raised alarm bells across the country.
Politicians of all stripes – surprise! – did what politicians do in such circumstances. They panicked and started proposing and passing legislation willy-nilly in many jurisdictions, culminating with the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Gay marriage seemed permanently stalled, although civil unions were slowly taking hold in some jurisdictions.
Then, in late 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, led by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, declared that gay people constitutionally deserved civil marriage, just like their straight brothers and sisters. And, after a lot of political weaving and dodging by various legislators and Gov. Mitt Romney in unsuccessful attempts to block it, marriage equality became law. In May of 2004, the first gay marriages in the nation began.
Two things happened then. First, ordinary people throughout the country, faced with a new and strange concept, pushed the panic button, allowing politicians, specifically Republicans, to use the fear of the unknown as an organizing and get-out-the-vote campaign tool, backing state laws and constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. They even fervently – and cynically – promised a national constitutional amendment, even though such a thing was not at all likely to pass ultimately.
The second thing is that gay people in Massachusetts began to get married. They applied for licenses, they exchanged vows before their friends and families, they wept with joy and smiled for the cameras – just as straight couples before them had done for seemingly forever.
And the earth didn’t stop turning. The sun continued to rise in the east. Spring, summer, fall and winter took their usual turns. And straight people continued to fall in love, get married, have children and sometimes get divorced just as they also had done for seemingly forever.
Well! Maybe gay marriage wasn’t the end of civilization as we knew it. What had been the big deal?
And so it began, this march to marriage, with New England in the lead. Vermont had been riven with dissent in 2000 when it pioneered civil unions in response to a Vermont Supreme Court decision that the state had to provide “the same benefits and protections afforded by Vermont law to married opposite-sex couples.”
The civil unions law prompted a bitter “Take Back Vermont” campaign amid general political turmoil. But there was barely a whisper when the legislature enacted – over a gubernatorial veto – same-sex marriage in 2009.
Civil unions became legal in New Hampshire in January 2008, prompting the Monitor to note editorially that perhaps it was time to begin considering actual gay marriage, even though it would undoubtedly take years to achieve. “Years” apparently flew by. We adopted gay marriage in June 2009, effective in January 2010.
Even the startlingly conservative GOP legislative super-majority elected in the fall of 2010 – with many members running specifically against gay marriage – were unable to repeal the law. It’s here to stay.
And gay marriage – or, if you prefer, same-sex marriage or marriage equality – seems equally here to stay in many parts of the country, including (if Utah holds) now 18 states, the District of Columbia and at least six native American jurisdictions.
Just last summer the U.S. Supreme Court struck down one of the central provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by Clinton 17 years ago. That, in turn, is prompting a variety of court decisions across the country dealing with other issues left undecided by the Supreme Court.
The military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – another anti-gay measure dating from the Clinton era – is also history, and gays can now serve openly and proudly in our country’s armed services.
It’s not all bliss for gay folks in these United States, of course. Short of being bludgeoned judicially, it’s hard to imagine such jurisdictions as Alabama or Texas adopting gay marriage in any foreseeable future.
But it certainly is a far, far different nation from the one most gay Americans came of age in, not all that many years ago. It’s a better one, a much better one. For all of us.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)