Can these marriages be saved?
Those who say that the gay marriage ban will be defeated at the next ConCon haven't counted the votes
by Laura Kiritsy
Thursday, May 19, 2005
Judging from the parade of heavyweights who touted the Massachusetts Democratic Party's support for marriage equality at its platform convention on May 14 at Lowell's Tsongas Arena, it's easy to conclude that support for the issue was routine. In her introduction of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, Nikki Tsongas, the widow of Sen. Paul Tsongas, plugged Kennedy's support for same-sex marriage. In his keynote address, Kennedy emphasized that Democrats must not retreat from "full equality for gay and lesbian Americans." And then there was Congressman Marty Meehan, who said that Democrats would stand for the rights of gay people to serve in the military, be free from employment discrimination, "and to make a lifelong commitment to the ones they love."
Certainly, the Dems' official endorsement of marriage equality in the convention platform that day only served to reinforce the sentiment that support for marriage equality is anything but controversial. Given the Party leadership's strong support for equal marriage, and the state legislature's overwhelmingly Democratic makeup, the death of the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage at this fall's constitutional convention should be a no-brainer. But that's hardly the case, say equal marriage activists.
Without a doubt, the political and social climate has shifted significantly in favor of marriage equality: Recent polls, for instance, show a greater level of comfort with same-sex marriage since couples began marrying last May; there has been no electoral backlash for supportive legislators - pro-equality forces, in fact, gained legislative seats last November and this April in three special elections; and the current House speaker, Sal DiMasi is a strong supporter of marriage equality. The biggest obstacle right now, marriage equality advocates have said, is that despite rumors to the contrary, not one incumbent who voted for the amendment last year has committed to changing their vote the next time around. As Melrose state Rep. Mike Festal puts it, "I want to make the exclamation point on it: We are not ready to declare victory."
As encouraging as the trends are, Festal points out that a bloc of 10 to 12 lawmakers voted against the amendment because they could not even support civil unions, much less equal marriage rights. Ultimately, they may not want to align themselves with pro- equality forces when the final vote is taken. "And that's a wild card," says Festal. "So that means that any member who might have voted for civil unions as a compromise [last year] needs to be revisited and needs to be reminded that this is it." When some of those legislators are presented with the option of supporting equal marriage or enshrining discrimination in the constitution once and for all, says Festal, "I think some of them are absolutely capable of changing their minds."
Those are the legislators that folks like Bonnie Winker are exhausting themselves to persuade. The 61-year- old retired math teacher and her spouse, Mary McCarthy, 66, are hosting a May 19 meeting at their Maynard home with state Rep. Patricia Walrath, D Stowe, to continue a dialogue with Walrath aboutmarriage equality that Winker says began even before last year's constitutional convention. Two other constituent couples, one with two children, will also attend the meeting.
Though Walrath voted for the amendment last year, Winker, a member of the state Democratic committee and a delegate to this year's platform convention, has not given up on her state rep. "I know Pat and Pat is a wonderful, wonderful woman," says Winker. "We think the same on every single issue except this. She's pro- abortion, she's pro stem cell research, so all these wonderful issues we agree with. She works for our town. I love her, except on this issue. But if she's so good in all these other areas, then I personally feel that she will change her mind. She will see the light," Winker adds, laughing. "She's not one of these people who have said, 'No go away leave me alone.'" But Winker isn't relying on her own powers of persuasion. She's spent recent weeks standing outside of her local supermarkets, walking the streets and knocking on doors collecting signatures in support of marriage equality. "So right now we have 300, saying to Pat Walrath that they believe in the Goodridge decision and that we should have same-sex marriage."
Marc Solomon, MassEquality's political director, estimates that there are dozens of legislators like Walrath, fence-sitters who are listening to their constituents and struggling with their next vote. But he is cautious about reading meaning into their willingness to meet with equal marriage proponents. "That does not mean that dozens are going to come our way, or that we expect dozens to come our way, or that we have commitments from people," he says. "But I think that there are plenty of people who are thinking about it, who are listening."
The Greater Lowell Equality Alliance (GLEA), an arm of MassEquality that organized a year ago, is getting a lukewarm response to its efforts to persuade its legislative delegation, the majority of which opposed marriage equality at the last constitutional convention. GLEA members, who turned out in force for a stand-out at the Democratic convention, recently met with Lowell Democratic Rep. Kevin Murphy. "He's admitted that he's in the middle, undecided," said Kate Tyndall, a co- founder of he group. "But he's receptive to meeting withus and hearing what we have to say. Some of the other politicians haven't really stepped up to the plate to have a conversation. And we will be pursuing that after this convention."
Despite the growing acceptance many married gay and lesbian couples are finding within their communities, Tyndall, a community psychologist who married her partner Debbie Grossman, an attorney, last year, suggests that some legislators may be more isolated from the issue than people would think. "A lot of them are taken aback," says Tyndall of legislators who have met with married same-sex couples. "It's like they're uncomfortable." Their discomfort is okay, says Tyndall. "We just want them to put a face with the issue [and] understand that it's wrong to write discrimination into the constitution. It's just wrong." While there are more than 480 married couples in the Greater Lowell area, local legislators, she observes, "have no clue. They think it's just a few couples here and there."
Salem resident Bob Murch describes a similar disconnect. Since he married Gary Halteman on the steps of Salem City Hall on May 17, 2004, Murch has lobbied just about everyone within earshot about the need to preserve equal marriage rights, from his hometown mayor and city councilors to Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry of Peabody. Last month, Murch and Halteman spent the day at the State House, where they held a series of meetings with legislators or their aides and handed out 200 informational packets, one for every rep and senator on Beacon Hill, that included wedding photos, a copy of their marriage license, biographical information and testimonials from supportive friends and family members. Many lawmakers, says Murch, got their first glimpse of a gay couple's marriage license that day. "They were like, 'Oh my God, you put your marriage certificate in here. We haven't seen one yet,'" he recalls in a recent interview. "[I said], 'You haven't seen one yet? And you're voting on it?'" There were other indicators that not much has changed in the minds of some lawmakers since last year's debate, says Murch. Such as Bible-quoting legislators and aides, those who still don't get why civil unions aren't adequate and those who were clearly uncomfortable even shaking hands with a gay man.
Such tales raise the question: Are pro-equality forcesdoing enough now to persuade legislators to change their votes? Murch, for one, isn't so sure the job is getting done. Many of his friends, he says, have adopted an attitude of, "I worked to get married, I got married, and now I just want to put my head down and be left alone. It's unfortunate that that's the attitude. I understand it because I would like to enjoy my marriage as much as everyone else without having to fight for it."
It's a concern shared also by Democratic state Rep. Marty Walsh of Dorchester, who suspects that members of the gay community have become complacent. "I just think in general the gay community has to become more active politically," says Walsh. "Just to lend support and be there to lean on for people. It's nice to have a face with your vote." Walsh notes that there is a lesbian couple in his district who are the parents of twins: "That's the face of gay marriage to me."
Walsh suggests that now is the time to ratchet up lobbying efforts. "It's very close," he says of the upcoming vote. "Seats have been picked up. And I think a lot of people took a vote against gay marriage last year that took a very bad vote. They feel very bad about the fact that they voted that way and they're on the cusp of realizing it."
If constituents are to change wavering legislators' minds at this point, says Democratic Rep. Marie St. Fleur, they may have their work cut out for them. "I think it's more than contacting them," she says. "I think for me it's being able to sit down with someone and connecting with them on a human level. I think all those of us who have come to this issue came from various places based upon their background. And for me lobbying from a lobbyist is one thing and that's important. But also being able to connect with someone on a human level to understand what this means - I think that's important too."
But Murch says he's not trying to change anyone's beliefs about equal marriage. What he has told legislators is this: "You can't legislate how people think. But you can make sure that I'm protected equally," he says. "And that's all we're asking."
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