Why We Sued for the Right to Marry

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EVERY long-term gay or lesbian couple has stories about being denied access to benefits or excluded from protections that are available to heterosexuals. Some are minor inconveniences, such as the inability to rent a car the way a married couple can, while others are major life situations, like being locked out of the hospital room where your partner is in medical jeopardy. We have long accepted these as the price of being gay.

Several years ago our daughter Annie asked my partner Julie if she and I were married. Knowing she couldn’t lie, Julie tried to find a way to explain to a four-year-old why we were not. It made little sense to the child. After that, Annie and I were listening to the Beatles and talking about love. She started naming the people she knew who loved each other and I noted that they were all married couples. “What about Mommy and Ma?” I asked. “You don’t love each other,” she replied. “If you loved each other, you’d be married.”

Goodridge    On March 28, 2001, Julie and I, armed with blood tests and cash to cover the fee, went down to Boston City Hall to apply for a marriage license. Julie was certain we would get one, I was certain we’d be arrested. We got to the window and told the clerk we wanted an application for a license. “Where are the grooms?” she asked. We answered that there aren’t any grooms, just us brides. She stated that she was not allowed to issue us a marriage license, and referred us to the director of the department. After a lengthy conversation, it was clear that we were not going to fill out a marriage application that day.

In April 2001, seven couples from all over Massachusetts, brought together by Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), filed a lawsuit claiming that it was unconstitutional for the Commonwealth to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. The suit received barely any notice in the press. In November 2001 the case was heard in Superior Court, and in May 2002 the judge ruled against us, stating the following:

Recognizing that procreation is marriage’s central purpose, it is rational for the legislature to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples who, theoretically, are capable of procreation. … Moreover, because same-sex couples are unable to procreate on their own and therefore must rely on inherently more cumbersome means of having children, it is also rational to assume that same-sex couples are less likely to have children or, at least, to have as many children as opposite sex couples.

“Inherently more cumbersome”? This was puzzling. Creating Annie had not been cumbersome in the least. And my Aunt Bee, who’s 75, just got married for the fourth time. Doubtless she would be surprised to learn that procreation is the central purpose of her union.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court picked up the case on appeal and we were back in court on March 4, 2003. Aside from the birth of our daughter, I’d be hard-pressed to name a more amazing event in my life than having Mary Bonauto argue our case before those seven Justices.

Then the waiting started. Everyone expected the decision to come out that July. We received many calls from the press and had several news shows taped in our backyard in anticipation of the decision. Every morning at 8:00 AM the court posts a list of decisions that will be released that day, so every morning we would check the website. Months passed. On Tuesday morning, November 18, I checked the website as Annie and Julie were leaving for school, and there it was: Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health. I’m told I screamed. Then there was a two-hour wait until the actual decision was posted. The first sentence I was able to focus on read as follows: “Barring an individual from the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution.”

Six months later, on May 17, 2004, Julie and I were married with Annie as ring bearer and flower girl.

MARRIAGE is not the only issue before the GLBT community. We can still be fired just for being gay in a majority of states. We can lose our housing and our children. But the marriage issue has galvanized our community and our allies, and will bring more energy to those other critical issues. According to U.S. Census data, currently 96 percent of all American counties have at least one same-sex couple raising children. One quarter of gay couples who live together have children.

When people who oppose same-sex marriage are asked to explain their position, most report that they don’t know any gay men or lesbians. They’re probably wrong in most cases—which is why it’s so important that as many of us as possible take the simple but brave step of coming out to family, friends, and co-workers.

Although we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, I would do it again in a heartbeat. I am daily overwhelmed by the courage, dignity, and commitment of people working for equality. I have a basket filled with e-mail messages and cards that have arrived, many from total strangers, supporting our actions and wishing us well. When I get cranky about doing a debate or posing for a picture, I read them. That so many people have taken the time to write to say thank you—some including pictures of themselves with their families—is very humbling and inspiring.

Now that same-sex marriages have been taking place in Massachusetts, and the predicted flames of hell and the plagues of locusts did not materialize, I trust that other states will follow suit. By the time Annie is old enough to marry, I believe it will be as uncontroversial an issue as interracial marriage is today. (Recall that in 1958, when I was two, 96 percent of whites disapproved of interracial marriage, and the Supreme court did not rule on that issue until 1967.) I think the lines of people waiting to marry in San Francisco and Portland and other locales present an inspiring picture. What happens when a window of equality opens just a little crack? Love breaks out all over.

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