by Karen Kahn
Is marriage equality subject to the seven-year itch? Are we losing interest in it? From all the evidence, it looks to me that, in Massachusetts at least, our commitment to marriage equality remains strong. In fact, in our home state, marriage of same-sex couples has become so ordinary that when you hear that someone is about to tie the knot, you can make no assumptions about the gender of the bride/groom to be.
About the only conflict there seems to be around same-sex couples marrying in Massachusetts is what to call your same-sex spouse. Though men have become quite comfortable with “husband,” two professors at Salem State University find that women are still working out the linguistic issues. For many old-time feminists, “wife” just carries too much baggage, “partner” doesn’t infer marriage, and “spouse” sounds a bit legalistic. But give us another seven years, and I’m sure we’ll find the right vocabulary!
Of course, same-sex couples in Massachusetts still face discrimination, which is why GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto and the Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley are challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Those suits, which argue that DOMA is unconstitutional because it forces states to treat same-sex couples differently than heterosexual couples, got a big boost this spring when the Obama administration announced that it would not defend DOMA in court.
This was great news for same-sex families who currently are denied thousands of federal marriage benefits, including Social Security survivor benefits, the right to file joint tax returns, and the right to sponsor citizenship for foreign same-sex partners. It affirmed the administration’s commitment to supporting LGBT equality, and put into sharp relief the country’s shift in attitude since 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law. Though there remains strong opposition in many parts of the country, the latest national Washington Post-ABC poll shows a majority of Americans (53 percent) now support gay marriage. That’s up from 36 percent just five years ago.
That shift in public opinion is in no small part due to the “reality TV show” now playing in four New England states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont), Iowa, and the District of Columbia, all of which grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As thousands of same-sex couples have married, none of the dire predictions by the National Organization for Marriage and other right-wing evangelicals such as Pat Robertson and Chuck Colson have come true. Though some want to blame Katrina, the Great Recession, the Japanese quake/tsunami, and this year’s tornado season on the acceptance of same-sex families, most Americans find that treating people equally aligns with their most cherished values.
Of course that doesn’t mean that the road to marriage equality has been without obstacles. There were the painful setbacks in California (2008) and Maine (2009), when these states passed ballot measures that blocked previous decisions to grant same-sex couples marriage licenses. Proposition 8 in California was especially disheartening since it took away rights granted by the state’s high court, and ended a flood of same-sex marriages that had begun the previous spring. In November 2010, the anti-marriage equality movement focused on Iowa, where they convinced voters to oust three Supreme Court justices who had ruled in favor of marriage equality the previous year. New York, Rhode Island, and Maryland have all come close to passing marriage equality legislation but all have fallen short.
Nonetheless, as Massachusetts abolitionist Theodore Parker said, “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” In the latest round of victories, Hawaii, Illinois, and Delaware have all passed civil union bills in their current legislative sessions. Though these laws fall short of full marriage equality, they offer same-sex couples and their children significant social and economic benefits. Additionally, in a show of bipartisan support, New York marriage equality activists have raised millions of dollars from Wall Street Republicans, enlisting their support, along with that of Mayor Bloomberg, to pressure the state’s Republican-led Senate to stop blocking marriage equality legislation. Finally, just this week, Freedom to Marry announced that Caroline Kennedy had become the 100,000 signer of a petition asking President Obama to explicitly state his support for marriage equality.
Indeed one hardly needs a poll to know that we are experiencing a seismic shift in attitudes toward LGBT people. In 2004, when same-sex couples first married in Massachusetts, Vermont was the only other state where equal rights and benefits were available to same-sex couples (through civil unions). Today, 13 states and the District of Columbia–or more than one-quarter of the United States of America—recognize same-sex couples and their families. That is astounding progress in a nation that is deeply divided on a great many social and political issues. In fact, the movement for marriage equality offers hope that our nation will find its way back to a vision of the future that truly values equality and justice for all.
Karen Kahn is co-author, with Pat Gozemba, of Courting Equality: A Documentary History of America’s First Legal Same-Sex Marriages. The former editor of Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, she also edited Frontline Feminism: Essays from Sojourner’s First Twenty Years. Kahn and Patricia Gozemba got married in September 2005; they live in Salem, Massachusetts.
Author photo by Marilyn Humphries.