In N.H., marriage equality didn’t happen without a fight

  • Supporters watch as Gov. John Lynch, D-N.H., signs gay marriage into law at the State house in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, June 3, 2009.(AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 6/1/2019 10:47:18 PM

Ten years ago, the idea of marriage equality in New Hampshire was hotly contested.

Now, it seems like the right is part of the Granite State’s fabric – so much so that the Monitorfound this year that the number of same-sex marriages dropped by 50% from 2013 to 2018, a possible testament to the routineness of the practice.

But Mo Baxley remembers a different time, when millions of dollars were spent by outside groups to try and oppose House Bill 436, the bill then-governor John Lynch would sign on June 3, 2009, to make New Hampshire the fifth state with same-sex marriage rights.

As one of the leaders of New Hampshire Freedom to Marry, she remembers getting death threats and testifying during 12-hour legislative meetings attended by “busloads” of opponents who came from outside the state. She remembers the mix of emotions – “Like Christmas and the 4th of July all rolled into one” along with sadness and grief – when the bill was passed.

And after Lynch signed the bill – but before it went into effect on Jan. 1, 2010 – she remembers conservative radio show host Doug Lambert calling the state Democratic Party’s chairman, Ray Buckley, a homophobic slur after the conclusion of his “Meet the New Press” radio show. Lambert lost his radio show and was kicked off then-Manchester mayor Frank Guinta’s congressional campaign after the incident.

And that doesn’t account for the 30-year fight that proceeded HB 436’s passage, Baxley said. “It took a Herculean effort, a lot of hard work,” she said.

It’s a testament to how legislative battles that once divided people can fade once a law changes – and how a generation later, people might not remember that fight.

The override of New Hampshire’s death penalty last week was the climax to a decades-long discussion. New Hampshire’s recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day didn’t happen until 1999, making it the last state to recognize the holiday.

Jim Splaine, the Portsmouth legislator who sponsored HB 436 with now-Somersworth mayor Dana Hilliard, was no stranger to contentious fights. He sponsored the first of many failed MLK Day bills in 1979.

And in 2007, he brought forward a bill that legalized civil unions in New Hampshire, after some of his Democratic colleagues told him to wait. “There wasn’t a lot of interest,” he said.

The bill passed anyway. And despite requests that he wait on such a controversial issue, Splaine brought his marriage equality bill before the State House in 2008.

Splaine, who has been openly gay since the 1980s, knew the fight for marriage equality was going to be tough.

As the prime sponsor, he remembers speaking first during public hearings on the bill and seeing the “expressions of disrespect and hatred” on some committee members’ faces. People called him slurs in the State House hallways.

New Hampshire was also the first state to deal with the matter legislatively – the other four were pushed into adopting marriage equality via court orders, Splaine said.

The deciding votes were nail-biters. HB 436 failed first before the House in a 183-182 vote. A motion to reconsider was called for, and 20 minutes later, marriage equality came out on top in a 186-179 vote, Splaine said.

The Senate vote was also close, with 13 voting in favor and 11 in opposition. A month later, Lynch signed the bill into law.

Things have changed, Splaine said. A longtime politician in Portsmouth, he now serves as one of the city’s police commissioners. And while there may always be people who reject his identity, Splaine said people are much more accepting now.

“I think we’ve gotten to the point where people aren’t just tolerated, they’re more accepting of the diversity of New Hampshire,” he said. “I think it can happen.”

Baxley said a generation not knowing a time without marriage equality was what she worked so hard for. She also said outside interests made the debate more heated than necessary.

“In the end, Granite Staters don’t believe in discrimination,” she said.

Still, Baxley hopes people don’t forget that struggle or take it for granted.

“There’s a whole generation of folks coming up and this is all they’ve ever known,” she said. “And that’s a good thing.”

She also doesn’t want LGBTQ+ allies to think the fight for equality stopped in 2015 when same-sex marriage become legal across the country.

For instance, the fight for transgender individuals’ rights and protections is just beginning, she said.

“I went to a hearing about a bill maybe a month ago, and the language opponents were using was almost verbatim what they were saying about marriage equality,” Baxley said. “It was the same kind of tactics, and that’s sad.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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