First class for gays

November 25, 2003|By Derrick Z. Jackson

BOSTON -It is hard to imagine a better welcome for gay and lesbian couples than the words of Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In the 4-3 decision Nov. 18 that ruled gay and lesbian marriages to be legal, she wrote that the Massachusetts Constitution "forbids the creation of second-class citizens."

That is really what this is all about. Massachusetts became the first state to finally cut through the homophobia - not halfway and third-class (domestic partner benefits) and not three-quarters of the way and second-class (civil unions) but almost all the way to the first-class recognition of marriage.

The word "almost" is critical because the issue is hardly over. While the court declared gay marriage legal, it left the final codification up to the legislature, which must come up with a law consistent with the decision in 180 days. Leaving it up to the politicians is sure to be a circus of cultural contortions, locally and nationally.

Our last two presidents were good examples. Democratic President Bill Clinton courted the gay vote, then signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse to recognize gay and lesbian marriages performed in other states. White House spokesman Mike McCurry said in 1996 that Mr. Clinton was against same-sex marriage because "he believes this is a time when we need to do things to strengthen the American family." We will not digress about how Mr. Clinton "strengthened" his family.

President Bush, who represents a Republican Party that promotes gay individuals here and there but who rejected a meeting with the Log Cabin Republicans during the 2000 campaign, is currently having White House lawyers investigate whether marriage can be legally defined as being only between a man and a woman.

Asked for his views on homosexuality at a July news conference, Mr. Bush took a Christian sideswipe at gay and lesbian people by beginning his answer with, "I am mindful that we're all sinners." He went on to say, "That does mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on such an issue as marriage. ... I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman."

The Massachusetts State House has not been much better as it tosses and turns over this topic. Senate President Robert E. Travaglini has proposed the three-fourths method of pushing for civil unions. But Gov. Mitt Romney promised to fight to keep gay and lesbian couples back in his second-class compartment.

"Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman," Mr. Romney said. "I will support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that makes that expressly clear. Of course, we must provide basic civil rights and appropriate benefits to nontraditional couples, but marriage is a special institution that should be reserved for a man and a woman."

Hardly in the background is the Catholic Church, which also wants an amendment.

The irony is that just waiting all these months for the court's decision was itself so traumatic that some politicians on Beacon Hill embraced negotiations for civil unions as a way to ban gay marriage. John H. Rogers, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently told The Boston Globe, "My consistent philosophy throughout has been that it's not only possible but responsible to erect new foundations of social and economic justice without tearing down a time-honored tradition."

The problem with this kind of compromise is that its time is already passing. If politicians really wanted to strengthen American families, they'd be better off funding after-school programs and creating jobs. If the Catholic Church is serious about families, it should make sure its new procedures against child abuse are working. Railing about gay marriage in a society where half of straight marriages end in divorce is gutter politics that exploits one of our deepest remaining strains of bigotry.

In its ruling, the court said restrictions on gay marriage "are starkly at odds with the comprehensive network of vigorous, gender-neutral laws promoting stable families and the best interests of children." It said the state "failed to identify any relevant characteristic that would justify shutting the door to civil marriage to a person who wishes to marry someone of the same sex."

It concluded that a marriage ban "works a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason." The court, in its decision, chose to join the rational world. The decision invites the legislature, the governor, the president and the rest of America to heal the scars.

It is time to honor a new tradition: Gay marriage.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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