It may be hard to
imagine in the midst of the same-sex marriage firestorm
that's engulfing the country, but if the people who
predict public opinion are correct, in another two
decades gay men and lesbians will likely live in a
world that won't think twice about their weddings.
By then, newspapers won't be interested in reporting
on whether ceremonies feature cakes topped by two
grooms, two brides, or a bride and a groom. Planners
who cater to same-sex weddings will be a dime a dozen.
In 20 years or so, the spring of 2004 will seem
just a momentous blip in the history of
America's progress toward equal rights. It all
started, history will tell us, in 2003, just months after
the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws. In
November the highest court in Massachusetts ruled that
same-sex couples had an equal right to marry under
that state's constitution. On February 4 the court
reaffirmed its decision, asserting that civil unions
or domestic partnerships were not enough, that
separate did not mean equal for gay people.
By then, the trickle of historic events around
same-sex marriage had become a deluge. The president
had come out repeatedly against equal rights;
legislators in Massachusetts and numerous other states
rushed to debate whether the tide of equality could be
stopped. At press time, that debate remained
unresolved in Massachusetts, where in February
legislators voted down three constitutional amendments to
ban same-sex marriage but scheduled additional debate
for March--although no legislative action can
delay the court's order to allow same-sex
weddings no later than mid May.
History books will no doubt focus on more upbeat
moments, such as snapshots showing beaming gay men and
lesbians signing marriage licenses in San Francisco on
February 12--where new mayor Gavin Newsom
ordered that the city allow same-sex unions despite a
California statute outlawing gay marriage--and
in Massachusetts on May 17--the first day in
U.S. history that same-sex marriages will be fully and
unquestionably legal. Our kids will study these days in school.
Yes, they'll also read about the bizarre
plan by the right-wing chunk of the country to stop
gay marriage at any cost: to amend state constitutions
to deny marriage to certain citizens, to target for defeat
politicians who favor equality, to rally again and again at
churches and state capitols across the country to
shout their religious beliefs and pro-discrimination
slogans. These are the Anita Bryants of the new
millennium, the people heartened by President George W.
Bush's $1.5 billion plan to promote marriage
for straight people.
The history of American equality is not likely
to be kind to the people pressuring Washington
lawmakers to add a 28th Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution to ban access to marriage for gays and
lesbians. The amendment would be the first ever to
mandate discrimination against one group of Americans
and the first constitutional decree of second-class
citizenship since the end of slavery. Nor will history make
heroes of the Republicans who rant against gay
marriage to fire up the party's conservative
base, nor even of Democrats like presidential front-runner
John Kerry, who asserts his absolute opposition to equal
marriage rights while insisting he favors equality for gays.
"I think we will look back--in not
that many years from now--and will marvel at
what people were saying," says Cheryl Jacques,
executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay
advocacy group. "Every single time a majority
of people decide that someone is different because of
race, religion, skin color, or who they love, they say
they're not worthy of equal rights. Every time
we've looked back with horror on the fact that
one group of people had treated another group of
people this way."
On a more personal level, gay and lesbian
couples will remember the exact moment they decided to
tie the knot. After years of gay marriage existing
only as a subject for political debate, it actually arrives
as an extremely personal conversation between two
people about planning a ceremony in Boston or P-town.
After bruising battles in Hawaii in the mid 1990s and
Vermont later in the decade (culminating in the
nation's first civil union law in 2000), gay
men and lesbians are finally on the cusp of achieving
the security that married couples take for granted.
They are finally going to have to settle the issue of who
walks whom down the aisle, if they want a band or a
DJ, and if Crate and Barrel is a good place to
register for gifts.
Provincetown residents Bob Anderson, 46, and
Michael MacIntyre, 48, will hold their ceremony during
Memorial Day weekend at the historic inn they own.
They've been together for 12 years, which "is
probably a lot longer than some marriages, definitely
longer than Britney Spears's wedding,"
quips Anderson. Next year they plan to allow guests to
book the inn for weekend weddings.
Other couples--such as Christopher Sieber,
who plays a fictional gay dad on the ABC sitcom
It's All Relative, and his real-life
partner, Kevin Burrows--will celebrate the arrival of
equal marriage rights without heading immediately to
Massachusetts. Not that they don't think
marriage is a great step toward equality--and a
boost to the economy. "On Saturday Night Live,
Tina Fey went off about gay marriage and how much
it's going to boost the economy because
they're going to pump millions into these
weddings," Burrows says with a laugh.
"She said, 'How can you not vote for
Kerry when the economy is just going to be saved by that alone?'"
Burrows and Sieber met at a mutual
friend's birthday party a few years back. They
became friends while both were in The Lion King
on Broadway and started dating when Burrows left to play a
part in The Full Monty.
Three years into the relationship, the pair are
busy commuting cross-country to see each other.
Sieber--who tapes episodes of It's All
Relative in Los Angeles--is grateful for a
flexible schedule that allows him one week off after every
three weeks of work. But does that leave them enough
time for a marriage ceremony? "I think
we've had more of a discussion about where
we'll have the marriage than actually the ceremony
itself," Burrows says. "We have a great
house that's on an island in New Jersey that
would just be the most fabulous place for a ceremony that
you could imagine."
Adds Sieber, who terms the couple's
relationship easy and comfortable: "For
everyone who knows us, it would be kind of redundant
to get married at this point. We're not going
anywhere. We're not looking anywhere else.
Burrows and Sieber marvel at the speed with
which gay marriage is progressing through the country.
It seems like only yesterday they heard the news that
the Supreme Court had overturned all remaining sodomy laws.
"We were on an Atlantis Cruise," Sieber
remembers. "Here we were at sea on the biggest,
gayest cruise ever and they got on the public address
system on the boat and they said, 'Lady and
gentlemen...' and announced that sodomy laws had
been abolished across the nation. You'd never
heard so much screaming. It was very funny."
The main benefit they see to getting married is
ensuring the legal and financial protections afforded
everyone else, says Burrows, who is in the process of
getting his will in order. Adds Sieber: "Marriage is
all about getting certain rights in everyday life that
straight couples who are in terrible marriages still
have. Some [straight] people have these crappy
marriages, yet there are thousands of gay men and women out
there who love each other desperately and
they've been together for decades and they
don't have those same rights."
And don't get him started on divorce.
"I think we have a responsibility that if
you're going to get married, you should mean
it, because the divorce rate in this country is
insane," he says. "Gay people have never
been able to make this kind of commitment to somebody.
I think we'll have a better track record."
By 2024 perhaps most gays and lesbians will have
forgotten about the bitter conflagration that the
Massachusetts ruling is currently fueling across the
country. Religious conservatives have turned gay marriage
into their most unifying issue--and the biggest
boon for fund-raising--in years. In
Massachusetts, for example, gay-marriage opponents
have formed the intentionally misnamed Coalition for
Marriage, while supporters have countered with the
formation of Mass Equality, with the slogan "No
discrimination in the constitution."
So-called defense of marriage movements have
rocked statehouses from Rhode Island to Georgia to
Utah. On February 6, Ohio's Republican
governor, Robert Taft, signed into law one of the
nation's strictest same-sex marriage bans,
forbidding even health benefits for state
employees' unmarried partners.
"This backlash was inevitable,"
says Michael Adams, director of education and public
affairs for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education
Fund, based in New York City. "The reality is that if
we're a civil rights movement--and what
we're trying to do is to win equality for
ourselves and our relationships--you get to a
tipping point where you're getting close to winning.
We've gotten to that point. It's a great
thing, but we also have to deal with the
executive director of Freedom to Marry, compares the
outrage over gay marriage to the cases against interracial
marriage, which started to crumble in the 1940s. Back
then, protesters told courts they had no business
redefining traditional marriage, that public opinion
sided with the ban, that interracial couples were inferior,
and that allowing such marriages would create a legal quagmire.
"It wasn't until 1948 that the
California supreme court became the first to say that
race discrimination [in marriage] was wrong,"
Wolfson says. "It then took another 19 years for the
U.S. Supreme Court to strike it down. During those 19 years,
some states moved in the direction of equality while
other states discriminated until the very end."
Wolfson said the right wing's campaign is
a last-ditch effort: "Momentum is on our side,
and they're going to throw everything at us to
try and stop that, so we have to engage this in all 50 states."
For gay and lesbian couples who marry in
Massachusetts, the ceremony will be the easy part.
They will then return home to face changing even the
most mundane realities of their daily life, from filling out
health club memberships to ordering new checks, from
seeking employee benefits to updating emergency
contact information at their children's schools.
And as they reorganize their lives, the people around them
will gradually adjust to the reality of same-sex
couples who are legally married.
Whether they live inside or outside of
Massachusetts, "I think the best advice for
people who get married and come back is to operate as one
unit," says Matt Coles, director of the the American
Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian, Gay Rights,
and AIDS projects. "Ask your employer,
business, church, and neighbors to recognize the
marriage, and I think a lot of people will."
The federal Defense of Marriage Act, passed in
1996, may prohibit gay and lesbian couples from
receiving an estimated 1,049 benefits that federal
laws automatically give to married couples, but it has no
power in the private sector, where real social change
often takes hold. For example, Coles says, already an
increasing number of private companies are quietly
offering equal insurance benefits to gay and lesbian couples
who were married in Canada--same-sex weddings
are currently legally in Ontario and British
Columbia--without any public changes in their
This is the quiet revolution that the far right
most fears: daily acceptance of gay couples as equal
to straight couples. William Woods--a founder of
Hawaii's gay marriage movement more than a
decade ago--and his partner, Lance Bateman, were
married in the Canadian city of Vancouver in August
2003. Woods remembers bracing for people back home to
protest their marriage, but the couple experienced the
opposite. They received co-memberships to the AARP without
hassle, sign one immigration customs form for trips
abroad, and were offered the option to get joint
health insurance. They couldn't legally get the
same kind of property ownership rights afforded to married
couples, but, Woods says, "the title and
insurance companies really tried to facilitate us
being recognized as married."
Woods knows firsthand how nasty the fight over
equal marriage rights will be for same-sex couples in
the coming year. In the 1980s he began trying to
convince a state court that gays and lesbians had the legal
right to marry. In May 1993, Hawaii's supreme
court ruled that denying marriage licenses to gay
couples was unconstitutional unless the state could
prove a compelling public interest. That sparked fierce
protests and a bitter public relations battle from
both sides. The legislature panicked and passed a
constitutional amendment, later approved in a
statewide referendum, defining marriage as between one man
and one woman. The Hawaii supreme court then declared
Woods's lawsuit dead; the state would not issue
marriage licenses to same-sex couples. No gay or
lesbian couple has ever been legally married in Hawaii.
What worries a number of gay rights groups is
that out-of-state couples will be married in
Massachusetts, return home, and file a barrage of
lawsuits to get their unions recognized in their home state.
An explosion of such lawsuits could shift public
opinion and cause additional lawmakers to support
"defense of marriage" acts. The backlash
could also have a negative impact on other legal challenges
in which gays and lesbians are seeking equal treatment
under adoption laws or rules to punish antigay
harassment in schools. "The far right is tired of
just throwing grenades at our families, and they are looking
to construct nuclear bombs," says David Buckel,
a Lambda Legal lawyer. "They need to generate
all sorts of anxiety to do that."
Buckel advises gay couples who marry legally to
ask for guidance before filing a lawsuit in their home
state. "You have to evaluate what the laws look
like within that state: What does the court look like? What
does the legislature look like? You could win in court and
have it ripped away from you. I call it the 100-factor analysis."
But before activists can settle into a
methodical, state-by-state battle, the country as a
whole must first attend to the national circus that is
the 2004 presidential campaign. Same-sex marriage is already
a major issue, much to the chagrin of Massachusetts
senator Kerry, who is expected to lock up the
Democratic nomination for president by some time in
March. While Kerry opposes equal marriage rights for
same-sex couples, he recently told a crowd during a
campaign stop: "I believe and have fought for
the principle that we should protect the fundamental
rights of gay and lesbian couples--from inheritance to
health benefits.... I believe the right answer is
Nevertheless, the reelection campaign of
President Bush is expected to try to link Kerry to the
same-sex marriages occurring in his home state, and
Bush has already indicated his support for a federal
constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex
marriage--an amendment that as currently worded
could also impose a nationwide ban on civil unions
(invalidating those already in existence) and forbid
recognition of same-sex domestic partnerships at any
level of government.
"I think the president has misread the
lesson from 1992, when he watched his father lose
reelection," says Patrick Guerriero, executive
director of the gay group Log Cabin Republicans. The elder
Bush lost to Bill Clinton after a Republican national
convention in which right-wing activist Patrick
Buchanan called for a cultural war against homosexuals
and others. "This race, like most presidential races,
is going to get very tight, and if you attempt to get 5
million Christian evangelicals to the polls but you
tick off 10 million fair-minded Americans,
that's a weird political calculation."
The marriage battle will continue to be fought
on many fronts. HRC's national strategy is to
fight the Federal Marriage Amendment, block
"defense of marriage" acts, and counter
continuing attempts in Massachusetts to pass an
amendment to negate the same-sex marriage
ruling--and a threat from Republican governor Mitt
Romney that he'll prevent same-sex marriage
licenses from being issued on May 17 any way he can,
with or without an amendment, and perhaps in
contradiction to his own highest court's direct
order. "One of the things that we learned is
that we need to build the political support along with
the legal strategy," says Seth Kilbourn,
national field director for HRC.
Adds HRC's Jacques: "In Ohio we
learned that the business community has to be there
from day one before [the marriage] issue ever gains a
level of momentum. And we have to say to elected officials
that this is an issue that hurts business,
recruitment, and tourism. This isn't good for
As Jacques speaks to The Advocate, the
gay-marriage debate is changing at warp speed.
Guerrilla same-sex marriages OK'd by San
Francisco's mayor. Hundreds of gay rights supporters
and opponents still descending on Boston. New
"defense of marriage" bills introduced
in different states almost weekly. But through it all,
somewhere tuxedos are being rented, dresses are being
purchased, and richly frosted cakes are being
taste-tested for the big event.
Gays and lesbians should savor all these
moments--even the ugly battles over equality
inevitable this summer and fall. Twenty years from
now, we're going to look back at this whirlwind and
it'll seem like a quaint, distant memory.