When Hillary Goodridge was a student at Dartmouth College in the 1970s and first “coming out” as a lesbian, the last thing she thought about was same-sex marriage. She saw herself as a lesbian separatist and an enemy of anything that smacked of traditional institutions. Back then, the issues that engaged her were the anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid movements. At one political rally, a 20-year-old Goodridge got up and shouted fiercely, “Marriage is a patriarchal institution!”
But as the years passed, Goodridge's life underwent significant changes. She became involved in a long-term relationship with Julie, her partner for the past seventeen years. She left New Hampshire and eventually moved to Boston, where she currently serves as program director of the Unitarian Universalist Funding Panel. Eight years ago, Julie gave birth to their daughter Annie. (Hillary, Julie, and Annie share the same surname, which they adopted just before Annie was born.)
Annie's birth provided them with their first real encounter with the consequences of not being legally married. After problems developed following a planned Caesarian birth, Annie was rushed to the neonatal intensive-care ward. But when Hillary tried to see her, she was told she wasn't allowed. Hospital staff also barred her from visiting Julie in the post-op room. That wouldn't have been the case if they had been legal spouses. “It was really jarring,” she recalls.
Three years ago, Hillary and then-five-year-old Annie were discussing love and were naming various couples they knew who were married. Annie asked why she and Julie weren't married. “You don't love each other,” Annie said. “If you loved each other, you'd be married!”
Since then, both her mothers have been working hard to remedy the situation. In March 2001, they marched into Boston City Hall to apply for a marriage license.
“Where's the groom?” the clerk asked.
“We're two brides,” replied the Goodridges, glowingly, although they knew the outcome from the start.
The clerk told them they needed two grooms.
But the two women were determined to keep faith with Annie. The following month, they took the issue to court, joining six other couples as plaintiffs in the landmark case Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health challenging Massachusetts laws restricting same-sex couples from marrying. Remarkably, of the fourteen plaintiffs, seven are Unitarian Universalists. On November 18, 2003 , the state's highest court ruled by a 4-3 majority that “barring a person 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.” The court gave the legislature 180 days—until May 17—to comply. Then in February, the court reaffirmed its decision, making it clear that only marriage—not civil unions—would satisfy its earlier ruling.
The decision made Massachusetts the first state in the union to grant gays and lesbians full-fledged marriage rights, joining the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. In the months that followed, same-sex marriage seemed to be sweeping like a brushfire across the country. Gay and lesbian couples were camping out overnight and lining up in the rain in front of San Francisco City Hall for marriage licenses. A tiny county north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, handed out twenty-six same-sex marriage licenses before the state invalidated them. The mayor of New Paltz, New York, began officiating same-sex weddings without issuing licenses and faces nineteen misdemeanor charges as a result.
At the same time, the sudden possibility of same-sex marriage created a formidable backlash. Massachusetts legislators narrowly gave preliminary approval to a state constitutional amendment that would allow civil union status for same-sex couples but deny them the right to marry; if the legislature approves the same measure a year from now it would go to Massachusetts voters in 2006. Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts attempted to block the issuance of licenses on May 17. Ohio's governor signed a bill banning same-sex unions in his state, making Ohio the thirty-eighth state that explicitly bans same-sex marriage. In March, President George W. Bush announced he favored amending the United States Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Some Republican political strategists sensed a “wedge” issue with which to attack Democrats in the November election. And the religious right saw a crusade against same-sex marriage as a way to revive its political fortunes.
Yet a renewed culture war pitting conservative Christians against the aspirations of same-sex couples appears unlikely to reverse a very real march of progress. Even though same-sex marriage isn't on the legal horizon in most states anytime soon, American culture has come a very long way since the Stonewall riots that launched the gay movement thirty-five years ago.
The current cultural moment has not emerged from a vacuum. The attention of most heterosexual Americans—with perhaps the exception of the religious right—was focused on other matters. But notable shifts within the lives of people like Hillary Goodridge, within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, and within the larger society have prepared the way for the national focus on same-sex marriage. Those shifts have been mirrored in Unitarian Universalism as well. Within the LGBT population, the transformation can be seen as the personal and political maturing of an entire community. At the same time, the larger society has shown increased toleration, if not acceptance, of gays and lesbians. As the two trends have come together, much of the country has witnessed the growing visibility and mainstreaming of the gay and lesbian community, an assimilation into the very core of American life that parallels the path of various ethnic minorities.
The growing acceptance of gays and lesbians in mainstream culture seemed particularly evident last summer and fall. During a period of a few months, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state sodomy laws, the Canadian province of Ontario granted marriage rights to same-sex couples, the Episcopal Church elected the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop, and millions of Americans were glued to TV shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. In the wake of all this came the Massachusetts court decision. For advocates for gay rights, 2003 indeed seemed like a breakthrough year.
“Four years in the gay movement is like twenty-eight years in the rest of society,” says E.J. Graff, author of the Beacon Press book, What Is Marriage For? “We're living in dog time.”
In the early years of the gay rights movement, sexual liberation was the dominant concern for many gay men; at the same time, large numbers of lesbians, strongly influenced by the women's movement, focused on building their own community around feminist and anti-patriarchal values. For most gay men, marriage wasn't on their radar screen; for most lesbians, like Hillary Goodridge, marriage seemed inimical to the egalitarian new world they were trying to create.
But as the generation that came of age in the tumultuous and heady years of the 1960s got older, it found itself with radically changing needs. By the mid-to-late 1980s, AIDS was ravaging the gay male community, undercutting the sexual liberation ethos that had sustained many gay men; as a result, many men began focusing on long-term relationships. Among lesbians in the late 1980s, as the separatist ideology lost much of its power and women felt they had more personal and economic choices—and, in many cases, were approaching the end of their child-bearing years—a “baby boom” emerged. More and more, gays and lesbians were living lives very much like their heterosexual neighbors. Truth be told, many had always been doing so.
“The main factors that have led us where we are today are AIDS and the maturation of the core population of LGBT people who are politically attuned and motivated,” says Sue Hyde, New England field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “Our needs for equality have changed as we become older and more settled and become parents.” Hyde notes that, of the 594,000 cohabiting same-sex couples who identified as such on the 2000 United States census, 34 percent of lesbian and 22 percent of gay male couples had children under 18 at home.
Hyde says that activists now in their forties and fifties remain at the forefront of the gay rights movement today. So, not surprisingly, their issues—focused on relationships, family issues, and children—have taken center stage. Hillary Goodridge, now 47, says, “Having kids gives you a fierce, very primal feeling around protection of your family that I didn't realize before. I feel protective about my partner Julie, but it is my daughter Annie who brings out a ferocity.”
“The formation of families is so different today than in the '60s and '70s,” says Rob Compton, who, along with his partner, was one of the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case. “At that time, if you wanted to have kids, the only option was a traditional family. Many gay people ignored their gay side for that reason. But in the past few years, so many of our gay friends have adopted children. It is really amazing.” Compton himself was married to a woman for many years in order to have the kind of family he wanted. Compton, 54, and his partner, David Wilson, 59, have been together for seven years. Between them, they have five children from previous heterosexual marriages, and six grandchildren.
As the gay and lesbian communities came to look more and more like mainstream America, society also began seeing homosexuality in a new light. Although many early responses to the AIDS epidemic portrayed gay men as sources of contagion, the epidemic also prompted a much wider and more compassionate depiction of homosexuality in the media. More gay men and lesbians came out of the closet, organizing community-based aids service organizations and agitating for greater government action. The AIDS Quilt was first displayed at the second gay and lesbian march on Washington, D.C., in 1987 and generated tremendous sympathy and support. “The quilt was a significant turning point,” Hyde says. It changed the “you got what you deserved” approach to aids to a more sympathetic view of gay people, emphasizing the grief of an entire community.
At the same time, gay and lesbian family issues were gaining attention politically. Various cities passed domestic partnership ordinances that offered health and insurance benefits to partners of gay and lesbian municipal employees. In 1992, Vermont became the first state in the union to approve domestic partnership benefits for same-sex partners of state workers. A variety of companies, notably in the health-care and high-tech industries, began to include same-sex partners in their benefits packages. The decisions of Vermont and Massachusetts courts to legalize second-parent and step-parent adoption by a same-sex partner helped lay the legal groundwork for the later civil union and same-sex marriage decisions in those states.
Despite these shifts, it took time for the idea of same-sex marriage to take hold, especially in urban gay communities. When I traveled around the country researching my book In Search of Gay America, published in 1989 , I was surprised at the number of gay and lesbian couples I met who had been “married” or “joined in holy union”—sometimes in Unitarian Universalist congregations but primarily in churches that ministered specifically to the gay community, like the Metropolitan Community Church. Same-sex marriage, I wrote, was “a phenomenon rarely found in larger cities, perhaps because the pressure to fit in is not as strong there.”
It was the election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992 that marked the first major social shift on gay issues, ushering in a period E.J. Graff calls the “big thaw.” Promising “I have a vision and you're part of it,” the Arkansas governor actively sought the gay vote in his campaign for president. Once elected, Clinton announced he would issue an executive order ending the U.S. military's ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military. After an intense national debate the Clinton administration retreated, instituting the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy.
Despite the outcome, the discussion focused attention on gay issues as never before. Gay subjects emerged dramatically in literature, theater, and movies, culminating in Tom Hanks' Oscar for his role as a gay lawyer with AIDS in the film Philadelphia. Unprecedented visibility humanized a previously ignored and despised group of people. On April 25, 1993, hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians came to the District of Columbia for the Third Lesbian and Gay March on Washington.
Not surprisingly, gays in the military was the major issue of that April 1993 march. But the march marked the first time that same-sex marriage gained some notice, as well. On the day before the march, the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, married 2,000 gay couples in a ceremony on the steps of the Internal Revenue Service building. Although the event was largely obscured by the march itself, for those who participated it was a transforming occasion.
“I remember going down to escalators to catch the Metro to the IRS,” recalls Aleta Fenceroy of Omaha, who married her partner Jean Mayberry at that ceremony, “and the whole subway tunnel burst out with people singing ‘Going to the Chapel.' It was one of those moments that still gives me goose bumps when I think of it.” Later that day, she and Mayberry walked around Dupont Circle with wreaths of flowers in their hair, receiving the congratulations of strangers.
That year, same-sex marriage became a public issue for the first time—and provoked a major public backlash. The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the denial of marriage licenses to three same-sex couples represented discrimination on the basis of sex. The state legislature moved quickly to define marriage as only between a man and a woman; five years later, in a hard-fought referendum, almost 70 percent of Hawaii voters passed a constitutional amendment ratifying the legislature's decision. In the years following the Hawaii ruling, thirty-eight states and the federal government passed legislation defining marriage exclusively as a heterosexual province.
For gay activists, Hawaii was a crushing defeat, but for a brief, shining moment, same-sex marriage suddenly seemed possible to millions of gay Americans. Gradually, a subject that had been near the bottom of the gay agenda began to move towards the top. And, E.J. Graff says, in the period following “the big thaw” the “silent majority” of gay people in much of the country were finally able to be more public about their sexual orientation without fear of losing jobs and family.
“They are the ones who were raising kids, who were taking care of their elderly mom upstairs,” Graff says. “They are no longer making the ‘devil's bargain'—‘I live like I'm gay but I don't say it.' They suddenly had a voice. They want to get married, and they want to get married for the same reason their brothers and sisters do.” Although division still exists within the gay and lesbian communities over the push for marriage—with some still expressing reservations about having the state define their relationships—same-sex marriage became a grass-roots issue, one that directly touched the lives of gay people, as few issues had before.
And then in 1999 came an event more momentous in terms of the legal recognition of gay couples than anything that had occurred before. In December of that year, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the exclusion of same-sex couples from the benefits granted to married people violated the state constitution. A year later, after a highly contentious political debate, Vermont adopted the nation's first civil unions law, granting same-sex couples the same state rights as married couples in terms of probate, medical benefits, child custody, and inheritance. Civil unions might have been “separate but equal” but they were a giant step forward.
The outcome spurred Hillary and Julie Goodridge, Rob Compton and David Wilson, and five other couples into action in Massachusetts, along with the Boston-based legal organization, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which had played a key role in the Vermont decision. If they could say “I do” in Vermont, why not in Massachusetts? And, this time, they were determined, full-fledged same-sex marriage would be the result.
Back in 1973, when the Rev. Leslie Westbrook was a 27-year-old assistant minister at the Arlington Street Church in Boston, two young women came to her and asked her to perform “a ceremony of love.” They sat in front of her, holding hands, under a large portrait of William Ellery Channing, the great Unitarian minister who had served the congregation more than a century before. They loved each other, the two women told Westbrook; they wanted to tell the world of their love. The young minister liked them both and was impressed by the way they related to one another. For Westbrook it was something entirely new: She was in her first month in the ministry and had never performed a single wedding or taken a course on the subject in theological school. And yet, she recalled in a sermon that she delivered last year at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, “It didn't seem unusual to me, it seemed normal as apple pie, that I and the two women sitting with me under Channing's portrait were discussing their relationship and their wedding plans.”
Unitarian Universalists were out ahead of most other religious denominations in performing same-sex unions. According to the Arlington Street Church marriage book, three celebrations of love were performed there in 1973 and 1974, all of them for female couples. Although it is unclear which minister first blessed a same-sex union, a number of ministers are known to have officiated at ceremonies in the early 1970s, if not earlier.
Nonetheless, over the years, the UUA has reflected many of the same ambivalences—and often prejudices—about homosexuality as the rest of society. In 1967, the UUA Committee on Goals published the results of a survey that showed that 8 percent of UUs believed that homosexuality should be discouraged by law; 80 percent believed it should be discouraged by education; 12 percent believed it should be discouraged by either law or education. The key word was “discouraged.” Only 1/10 of 1 percent believed it should be encouraged.
For gay clergy, it was a particularly difficult time. The Rev. Eugene Navias remembers the years in the 1960s and '70 s when the only way to survive in the UUA was to be in the closet. “Come out in the UUA? Are you kidding?” he says. “The Department of Ministry was dead set against it. They shipped you out of the ministry as soon as they found out you were gay.” Navias, now 75, says, “Part of the price of the closet was that I could never have a committed partner. Although I saw gay men in other lines of work partnering and living together, I never saw that among the clergy.”
In 1980, the UUA General Assembly passed a resolution calling for nondiscrimination in ministerial employment regarding gays and lesbians. While some churches like Arlington Street felt comfortable performing same-sex unions, that certainly wasn't true everywhere. In the late '70s and ' 80s, as the numbers of same-sex unions performed by UU ministers increased, some ministers faced opposition from their congregations, according to the Rev. Keith Kron, director of the UUA's Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns. Some ministers were asked at job interviews whether they'd perform such unions. In 1984, the General Assembly faced the issue directly, passing a resolution supporting services of union. Much of the controversy surrounding them died down within a few years.
In 1997, the General Assembly endorsed the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, with 97 percent of the delegates voting in favor. These days, Kron notes, some ministers have gone so far as to refuse heterosexual marriage licenses until same-sex marriage becomes legal; approximately thirty UU ministers have done so. Yet clearly there is still some ambivalence. While many Unitarian Universalists in Massachusetts may see the issue of same-sex marriage as “their civil rights battle,” Kron says, in some more conservative parts of the country, UU congregations and ministers can be as reluctant as their neighbors to embrace the issue.
For Rob Compton and David Wilson, the support of their Unitarian Universalist congregation—Boston's Arlington Street Church—has made a huge difference in their lives. Back in October 2000, the couple had a commitment ceremony at Arlington Street, presided over by the openly lesbian senior minister, the Rev. Kim K. Crawford Harvie. Three years later, on the day that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its ruling on same-sex marriage, the doors to the church were open for prayer and meditation; that night, the Freedom to Marry Coalition held a celebration there. “That is just another example of a UU church being welcoming,” says Wilson.
On May 17, the first day that same-sex marriage will be legal in Massachusetts, Compton and Wilson will go to Boston City Hall to apply for a marriage license. (After the required three-day waiting period, Crawford Harvie will sign it.) Then, if all goes as planned, on October 8, the anniversary of their commitment ceremony, the couple will return to the church to renew their vows. There will be a candlelight ceremony and a reception. But one major thing will be different on their fourth anniversary: This time, their minister will bless their Massachusetts wedding license.
If you look at American society today, you see a landscape unimaginable twenty-five or even ten years ago—a country where network and cable TV shows feature witty and appealing gay and lesbian characters (Ellen DeGeneres, the openly lesbian comic whose sitcom character came out to much controversy in 1998, has reinvented herself as one of the most popular daytime TV talk show hosts), where thousands of same-sex couples walk around with marriage licenses authorized by the city of San Francisco and by Multnomah County, Oregon, and where thousands of others in Massachusetts plan their weddings.
But the social and political landscape is complicated as well, with wide differences in attitudes towards homosexuality among regions, generations, religious groups, and urban and rural areas. Reality TV shows or sitcoms like Will and Grace that depict gays and lesbians in a positive light may open people's eyes a bit, but not everyone has been watching—or marching in lockstep. As political organizer Hyde points out, “To imagine [that] Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or a show about finding a boyfriend will generate fundamental political change is magical thinking.”
And, in every poll, Americans remain solidly opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage, in some cases by two-to-one majorities. The numbers of support have moved only slightly in the past ten years, often falling during periods of backlash. Even a New York Times/CBS poll last July, which showed that 54 percent of Americans favored legalizing “homosexual relations,” revealed strong opposition to same-sex marriage.
Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College, argues that while society is increasingly tolerant towards gays and lesbians, tolerance only goes so far. “Americans support the right to privacy,” he says. “They will look the other way. But if it is a public phenomenon, which marriage is, people see it as ‘in your face.' They don't like the idea, in spite of the overwhelming acceptance of homosexuality.” He adds that “the sea change in our culture—at least on TV—hasn't extended to same-sex marriage. Marriage is still viewed as a sacred event that has to do with raising children.”
Since the Massachusetts court decision, civil unions—once a radical position that nearly caused the state of Vermont to explode into civil strife—emerged as a “moderate” compromise for many voters and politicians in that state. All the Democratic candidates in the 2004 presidential race supported civil unions, and former senator Carol Mosely Braun, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and the Rev. Al Sharpton endorsed full same-sex marriage rights.
Chris Bull, who has been covering politics for the past ten years as Washington correspondent for the gay biweekly newsmagazine, The Advocate, is equally doubtful that the Massachusetts court decision represents where the rest of the country is going—at least right now. In Massachusetts, Bull says, many years of activism and social change laid the groundwork on gay and lesbian issues. The state enacted a gay antidiscrimination law in 1989 (the third in the country after Wisconsin and New Hampshire) and under the liberal Republican Governor William Weld enacted legislation protecting the rights of gay high school students, a national first. A later court decision allowed second-parent adoption by same-sex partners.
“Massachusetts is more like Canada than it is like the rest of the country,” Bull says. “The state has a liberal population, the once-powerful Catholic church is under siege, there is no religious right to speak of. Those conditions have hardly been created in few other states. They haven't filtered down to the rest of the electorate.”
He suspects what we'll see in the rest of the country is a “patchwork approach,” with a few liberal-minded states perhaps legalizing same-sex marriage, and some states banning it outright. Bull argues that various states have to go through battles over gay nondiscrimination bills first, and undergo a ten-year cycle of “desensitization” on a variety of gay issues before they can cope with such a difficult issue as same-sex marriage. “Those states who have gone through the cycle already are ready for it,” he believes.
In some places the national controversy over same-sex marriage can make it harder to take those initial steps, as recent events bear out in Sioux City, Iowa, a town of 70,000 in the northwest part of the state. Six years ago the city council narrowly defeated an effort to add “sexual orientation” to the city's civil rights ordinance. This year, the Human Rights Commission proposed that the council take up the issue again. Some local gays and lesbians worried that the controversy over same-sex marriage would make it harder to change the city ordinance. “Everything that is happening in San Francisco could hurt our effort here,” cautioned Connie Jones, a Sioux City lesbian. “This marriage thing is coming so quickly. I'm afraid that people will be more reactive.” She was right. In late February, the city council rejected gay employment and housing protections by a 4-1 vote, with same-sex marriage a heated subject of discussion.
In Omaha, the nearest major urban area, the view is a little different, at least within the gay and lesbian community. Aleta Fenceroy, who was married at the March on Washington in 1993, sees a “pent-up euphoria” among gays and lesbians there, even though the state's constitution bars the recognition of same-sex marriages. “The reality of what nonrecognition means will happen at a later date,” says Fenceroy. “Right now people are caught up in the euphoria.”
Fenceroy seems to have caught the wave herself: She admits that she and her partner “considered hopping on a plane” to go to San Francisco to get a marriage license. But they thought better of it, especially since they already consider themselves married. “It would be fun to do a legal ceremony,” she says. “But unless it is recognized in Nebraska, it isn't essential.”
Despite the current backlash, journalist Bull believes that in the long run acceptance of same-sex marriage nationwide is simply inevitable. There may be a lag time, but it will happen eventually, as indicated by polls that show younger voters generally in favor of extending marriage rights. “People dip their foot into the water [of equality] and pull it out,” Bull says. “Then they go back into the water. Maybe they are in the process of pulling it out now. But they'll go back again.” More importantly, he argues, any group that is fighting for its own rights will win in the end. “They will be more vigilant than those against.”
In the end, beyond politics, beyond social changes and social movements, a greater force may help to transform the landscape. “The real push towards marriage isn't financial or legal,” says author Graff. “That is the easiest way to argue it, of course. But the ordinary Jane and Joe Homo, the 'silent majority,' they want to do this because they fall in love and marriage is an expression of love. The real oomph of the movement comes from this—people fall in love and want to get married!” And love may just be unstoppable.
This article appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of UU World (pages 26-34).
- "10 Years On: Gay Marriage in Massachusetts." Interviews with the seven couples who sued for the right to marry in Massachusetts in the landmark Goodridge case. By Scott Kiernan, photos by Joel Benjamin. Boston Spirit (May/June 2014).