Book of Love

Barbara Taormina interviewed Courting Equality authors Gozemba, Kahn, and Humphries. Her feature appeared in North Shore Sunday on May 27, 2007:

When Pat Gozemba and Karen Kahn first got together 17 years ago, they weren’t really thinking about marriage. Part of being a same-sex couple meant breaking free from typical roles and expectations.

“Marriage really wasn’t my issue,” says Gozemba, who adds that tradition was something gay and lesbian couples were moving away from, not pursuing.

And 17 years ago, marriage — and all the benefits and rights attached — wasn’t an option; it wasn’t within the realm of possibilities.

But all of that changed in November 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled the state could no longer deny the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage to same-sex couples. This was, after all, Massachusetts, and the commonwealth or at least the SJC didn’t want to create a group of second-class citizens.

Gozemba and Kahn rode the roller coaster ride to that landmark decision, and along the way their feelings about marriage changed. Same-sex marriage was no longer a personal decision or statement. It was a civil rights issue, and one of the most important civil rights issues of the opening years of the 21st century.

And when you’re cruising along an important shift in history, you want to do something; you want to play a part. So Gozemba, a former professor of English and women’s studies at Salem State, and Kahn, a former editor of Sojourner, a Boston-based feminist newspaper, did one of the things they do best — they wrote.

They joined forces with Marilyn Humphries, a photojournalist from Beverly, and together the three women told the story of the battle over same-sex marriage in a new book, “Courting Equality: A Documentary History of America’s First Legal Same-Sex Marriages.”

Kahn is the first to admit that when she agreed to do the book, she didn’t quite think it through.

“We knew we should help, we knew we should do this,” she says. “But we didn’t realize it would take up two years of our lives.”

Writing the history of people who are dead and buried is hard enough, but writing history as it unfolds around you can be excruciating. Things change, circumstances evolve and in the case of the same-sex marriage battle in Massachusetts, legislative votes keep changing the landscape.

For Gozemba and Kahn that meant dropping everything for last-minute updates and giving up vacations to do final re-writes. And although the story isn’t finished just yet, the book is.

 But for anyone hoping to understand the importance of the next chapter — the upcoming Constitutional Convention in June when state lawmakers will vote again on whether or not to put question of same-sex marriage on the 2008 ballot — “Courting Equality” is a must-read. It’s a history filled with big ideas and small touches that offers us all what we need to know and understand about why same-sex marriage is important to everyone.

Every picture tells a story

Like Gozemba and Kahn, Marilyn Humphries wasn’t all that determined to walk down any aisles.

“Marriage didn’t seem to matter that much,” she says. “Now in retrospect, I see that getting into certain institutions elevates your rights across the board.”

That’s not an easy concept to capture on film, but Humphries manages. “Courting Equality” is filled with images, personal and public, that show the passion that has surrounded the same-sex marriage debate. There are plenty of shots of speeches and protests at the State House that capture the emotion on both sides. And Humphries is especially kind to many of the state legislators who risked careers with their votes.

In fact, she’s even kind to the opponents who showed up to protest equal marriage.

“There were far uglier pictures of them that she could have chosen for the book,” laughs Gozemba.

Humphries’ photos offers a detailed historical record that takes us back in time to earlier fights for gay rights, through the Goodridge decision which legalized same-sex marriage and right into the center of the heated debates that played out on Beacon Hill.

 But it’s the same sharp eye for detail that makes “Courting Equality” fun just to flip through. There are slews of pictures of celebrations, wedding photos with cakes and flowers and portraits of parents and kids that show what same-sex marriage means to countless families throughout the state.

Gozemba and Kahn follow pretty much the same recipe for success with the text. If you need or want a historical overview of the gay rights moments in America, “Courting Equality” has that. The authors take a lot of complex legal and political information and make it accessible.

But like Humphries, Gozemba and Kahn go a step further and make “Courting Equality” a story about individual couples and families.

“We wanted to tell this history in a narrative fashion,” says Gozemba. “People relate to stories.”

And those stories resonate. When they explain the battle the gay community waged over the right to care for foster children, they do it through the experience of Donald Babets and David Jean, who were asked by the Department of Social Services to care for two young brothers. Babets and Jean opened their home and their hearts to those kids, only to have the state overrule DSS and move them to another home.

And when Gozemba and Kahn describe the scene in front of Cambridge City Hall on May 16, 2004, the night before the first same-sex marriage licenses were issued, they take you there in the company of Ralph Hodgdon and Paul McMahon, who had been together for 49 years and really weren’t looking to get married. Hodgdon and McMahon showed up for the party but apparently before they knew it, they were in line for a license.

Most of us have followed the equal marriage debate through television broadcasts and newspaper accounts, and we’ve gotten the sound bites and — if we’ve paid close enough attention — we’ve picked up the general gist of the various votes and political maneuvers. But most of us were not at the rallies or in the corridors of the State House, and we really have no idea the tensions, the fears and the excitement that surrounded all of it.

But Gozemba and Kahn were there, and in “Courting Equality” they paint us all sorts of pictures of people praying and singing and waiting and cheering. With some pretty adept storytelling, they bring recent history alive for all of us.

Looking ahead

The timing of “Courting Equality” couldn’t be better.

Not only have we just marked the third anniversary of the first same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, but we are headed into that second Constitutional Convention where the decision will be made on whether or not to put same-sex marriage to a popular vote.

Gozemba, Kahn and Humphries are watching and waiting and of course hoping that it doesn’t come down to that. Simply put, they say, it’s never a good idea to let the majority decide the rights of the minority.

Still, if it comes to that, all three women are braced for an onslaught of activists on both sides of the issue who will make Massachusetts the battleground state for equal marriage.

But now that “Courting Equality” is out on the shelves, will it change any minds or votes? Will all of the information and the personal anecdotes convince people that marriage is a basic right for everyone?

Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who is helping head up the Catholic contingent working to defeat same-sex marriage, says he hasn’t seen the book, but if someone sends him a copy he’ll give it a read. But ultimately, he doesn’t believe that marriage is a right and therefore doesn’t feel that denying anyone a marriage license would fall under the heading of discrimination.

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, has heard of “Courting Equality” but hasn’t looked at it just yet. And he’s really dumbfounded as to why the press keeps calling marriage equality a civil rights issue. “Don’t you know the difference between a civil right and a privilege?” he asks.

And maybe that’s what makes “Courting Equality” and Gozemba and Kahn’s knack to take us into the heart of the equal marriage debate even timelier and more important. We get to go with them and discover that what wasn’t even an option to consider 17 years ago is now a reality that needs to be celebrated and protected.

“I just didn’t think it was possible,” says Gozemba. “This is an idea of equality that I never envisioned.”

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