Gay marriage debate still fierce one year later
By Charisse Jones, USA TODAY
A year after marrying her long-time partner, Maureen Brodoff says the word "wife" still does not flow easily from her lips. But knowing that Ellen Wade is, indeed, her legal spouse has unexpectedly strengthened their 25-year bond. Julie and Hillary Goodridge carry copies of their wedding licenses
with them everywhere they go in case they have to prove they're
married in an emergency.
By Elise Amendola, AP
"I've never wavered in my commitment ... and never felt anything less from Ellen," says Brodoff, 53. "And yet we look at each other and we just marvel at how much closer in some mysterious way this whole experience has made us. It's partly the ritual. It's the coming together of you and your relationship with your community."
Today is their anniversary — and exactly one year since the first same-sex couples were wed in Massachusetts, following a decision by the state's highest court that legalized gay marriages.
Massachusetts remains the only state in the nation where same-sex marriages are legal. In the past year, more than 6,100 same-sex couples have gotten married — one out of six marriage licenses issued in the state. Among the same-sex weddings, about two-thirds are female couples.
But the national debate over whether such marriages should be allowed is as fierce today as it was after the Massachusetts court ruling in November 2003. Supporters and opponents are battling at the ballot box, in state legislatures and in courtrooms across the country.
"It was the second shot heard 'round the world from Massachusetts," says Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes same-sex marriage. He calls state bans on same-sex marriage "a national referendum to firmly establish marriage as being between a man and a woman."
Mary Bonauto of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders sees a different momentum. "Massachusetts helped people to crystallize in their minds that this country can't keep turning its back on gay and lesbian families," she says. "There's disagreement about how to change and how fast to change, but there's at least, clearly, some emerging consensus that that's the path we are on."
In the 15 months since the Massachusetts court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, polls consistently show a majority of Americans against it. Opposition reached a historic high of 68% in March in a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll. But the most recent poll, April 29-May 1, showed a significant drop of those against gay marriage, down to 56%. The poll showed support for gay marriage at 39%.
When asked if gay men and lesbians should have equal rights in job opportunities, 90% said yes, according to a Gallup Poll earlier this month. Polling also shows that people respond differently if asked about homosexuals vs. gays and lesbians. For example, when the Gallup Poll asked if "homosexuals" should be hired as high school teachers, 62% said they should. When the wording was changed to "gays and lesbians," 71% said yes.
Legislatures take action
Eighteen states have adopted state constitutional amendments against same-sex marriages. But a federal judge on Thursday struck down Nebraska's by saying it "goes far beyond merely defining marriage as between a man and a woman." Voters in three states — Alabama, South Dakota and Tennessee — will decide in 2006 whether to ban same-sex marriages. And legislatures in at least 13 other states are weighing similar amendments.
"We're going to continue to lose in many of these states," says Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. But he says opponents of same-sex marriage are rushing to pass such measures because the public over time will become less resistant to the idea. "They understand their window of opportunity to slam this door in our face gets smaller and smaller every year that goes by. The sky didn't fall on Massachusetts."
Gary Bauer, president of American Values, says the issue won't fade. "While the country is deeply divided on a number of issues, same-sex marriage is not one of them," says Bauer, whose Arlington, Va.-based organization opposes same-sex marriage. "The public overwhelmingly rejects any redefinition of marriage. ... Typical Americans are looking for ways through the democratic process to prevent that from happening."
A checkerboard of court decisions has affirmed and denied gay marriages. Judges in California, New York state and Washington state recently ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriage violates their state constitutions. But the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in April that 3,000 same-sex marriages performed last year were illegal.
Two states have opted to legalize civil unions. Connecticut passed a civil unions law in April that goes into effect in October. Civil unions give same-sex couples the same benefits as married couples without marriage. Vermont has permitted civil unions since 2000 following a state Supreme Court ruling.
Despite the lawsuits and amendments, the hub of the gay marriage debate remains Massachusetts.
"I think everybody was holding their breath. And then May 17 came and went," says Bonauto, whose organization filed the 2001 lawsuit that led to gay marriages in Massachusetts. "Non-gay people were able to experience what this looks like. And seeing what it looks like is the one thing that's brought the temperature down. People can see everything's fine."
Still, the state is moving forward on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage but allow civil unions. The Legislature approved the amendment last year and will take it up again in late August. The state constitution provides that the Legislature must pass it a second time before the measure would go to the voters in November 2006. The outcome is uncertain. Some state lawmakers who supported the amendment have left office.
For couples, some adjustments
Thousands of gay men and lesbians are now living as married couples in Massachusetts. They're filing income taxes together for the first time, becoming used to the words "husband" or "wife," and acquainting themselves with the myriad benefits and obligations that come with marriage.
The privileges became clear to Bob Buckley of Boston last fall, when his husband, Marty Scott, had to go to a hospital emergency room. "When they asked me what was my relationship, I said 'husband.' And I was sent right in, no questions, which was comforting," says Buckley, 45, who will celebrate his wedding anniversary with Scott, 39, on Friday.
"Marriage affects so many things ... from being able to pick your sick child up from school to visiting your dying partner in the hospital emergency room," says Foreman of the gay and lesbian task force. "It's taxes, it's Social Security, it's survivor benefits."
Brodoff and Wade, celebrating their anniversary today, were among the seven couples who filed the lawsuitagainst the state after being denied marriage licenses. "We wanted to have ... access to the protections and benefits and wanted to take on the obligations," says Wade, 56, who lives with Brodoff and their 16-year-old daughter in Newton, a Boston suburb. "We wanted to be part of that institution. ... It's an important civil right, and we should have it."
Brodoff found that while her job at the National Fire Protection Association provided benefits for domestic partners for nearly a decade, some benefits were available only to married couples. For example, if Brodoff died before retiring, a death benefit from her pension would go only to a spouse. "Probably the most important benefit I could hope to have ... is to know that if something were to happen to me, my beloved would be cared for. And that wasn't available to me," Brodoff says. "It shows you how marriage is just a bundle of important protections."
One of the twists that same-sex couples say they have encountered is getting used to calling each other husband or wife. Before their marriage, Brodoff says the term "partner" never seemed appropriate. "But on the other hand, the word 'spouse' or 'wife' is also not completely adequate. ... It's been an opportunity for us to talk about our relationship and what we are to each other." They decided to call each other "spouse."
Erin Golden, on the other hand, has reveled in being able to tell bank officials that the other woman on the deed to her home in North Truro is her wife, Eileen Counihan. Now, Golden says strangers don't even blink when she calls Counihan that. "I think it was freeing and empowering in talking to the world," Golden, 46, says of getting married. She says it has made her more outspoken about her relationship. "At work, I'll say to the guys, 'I have to get home to the wife.' And I never would have done that in the past."
But some aspects of marriage have proved less romantic. This year, for the first time, same-sex couples could file jointly on their state income taxes. But for their federal taxes, they had to file as single or head of household. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue put out a special form to sort through the potential confusion. Bonauto's group held a tax seminar. Couples and accountants spent extra time filling out a "phantom" joint federal return for the sole purpose of calculating their state taxes.
"There was a lot of education we needed to do with our clients," says Lillian Gonzalez of Sandberg, Gonzalez and Creeden, an accounting firm in Stoughton, Mass., which filed taxes for more than 100 same-sex couples. Gonzalez says she offered to put a footnote on her clients' federal returns that they were filing as a married couple in Massachusetts. And Bonauto's group encouraged couples to do the same by stating they were filing as single only because of federal law.
"I don't think any social justice struggle is won or lost in a day," Bonauto says. "And this one won't be."