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The tipping point: beginning May 17 in Massachusetts, gay and lesbian couples will be able to obtain fully legal marriage licenses for the first time in U.S. history. What does this mean for gay equality? (Marriage).

In just a few months Wilfred Labiosa 32, and John Barter, 36, have settled in among their straight neighbors in the Boston area. Like many committed gay couples in Massachusetts they've become unwitting local ambassadors for same-sex marriage rights, especially to those who can't yet wrap their minds around such a concept.

When the pair walk their dog (who sports a Human Rights Campaign collar) in the evenings, attend dinner parties, or perform chores in the yard, neighbors pepper there with questions: "What is this same-sex marriage issue before the legislature?" "How is marriage different from civil unions?" "Which lawmakers are gay-friendly?" "Who will you support this year in the upcoming election?"

"It's not a big deal," says Labiosa adding that some neighbors pass along names of other gay couples in the area. "They see that we're a couple---and the world keeps spinning, there is still sunshine, rain still falls--and the fact that we're a couple doesn't affect anything."

Labiosa, a health care worker raised in Puerto Rico, and Barter, a federal employee who grew up in a large Italian family in Boston, held their marriage ceremony in Provincetown, Mass., in September 2003, after five years together. In planning the event they figured the state's supreme judicial court would have ruled in favor of legalizing marriage for gay men and lesbians by that time and they would be able to obtain a license. The ruling didn't come down until November, but the couple went ahead with the 60-guest commitment ceremony in a church. "It was an amazing day," Labiosa remembers.

The couple and thousands of other gay men and lesbians are eagerly awaiting the next amazing day: May 17, when Massachusetts becomes the first state in U.S. history to issue fully legal marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Doug Johnstone, town clerk of Provincetown says that as of late March, 50 gay and lesbian couples had signed up to file the statement of intent that is the preliminary step in getting married, hi precious years the town clerk's office ordinarily issued no more than 30 marriage licenses in an entire year.

Labiosa and Barter plan to get their license as soon as legally possible. "We deserve the same rights as anyone else," Labiosa says, adding that it took the pair a year to plan their wedding ceremony and that they probably spent more money than many straight couples "What if in the future we want to adopt [a child] or buy more property? We need to have these rights with us. It's the least the government can do."

For gay men and lesbians, marriage rights have arrived at a wonderful and perplexing moment, especially since there was never much support for the idea in years past. When a few Hawaiians began to push for marriage equality in the early 1990s [see page 38] most gay men and lesbians--including the largest activist groups--scoffed at such a thought. Marriage was for straight people who wanted the kind of life that was supposed to be completely foreign to gays. But along the zigzag path to equality, stone-sex partners found that they had a lot more in common with straight couples than they originally thought. Not that they crave a yearly tax break or desperately want to register for fancy gifts. It's simpler than that: Gays and lesbians want to live with rite person they love and be treated like normal Americans. These days even gays who shun the altar generally agree that everyone should have the option to get the benefits that come with tying the knot--whether that takes the form of a drive-up ceremony in Vegas or a sit-down dinner for 500--and the protections that come with ending a marriage in divorce court. Marriage equality is a capstone for gay men and lesbians after years of enduring discrimination and prejudice. It is the tipping point after which all other rights will come as a matter of course: workplace protections, adoption laws that include gay parents, inheritance rights, hospital visitation rights, and so on.

"Marriage is the ultimate state and civil acceptance of normality," says Newton, Mass., resident Allison Bauer, 37, who has been with her partner, Marie Longo, 39, for 11 years. The couple have 2-year-old twins and plan to get a marriage license as soon as possible. "Gay men and lesbians have now come to a place where our relationships are inherently natural and normal in the course of everyday life, because people get married ha the course of everyday life."

Ironically, it is the far right that has put the battle for same-sex marriage in the most succinct terms. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, wrote in an article in March that "the right for marriage is less about 'gaining rights and responsibilities' and more about gaining a public stamp of approval for the homosexual lifestyle."

Gays might argue with his phrasing, but Perkins's grasp of the true significance of marriage equality is firm. What the far right fears more than anything is that gays and lesbians will be allowed to emerge from the shadows to win acceptance from the public at large. When that happens the far right loses its most potent weapon for rallying against us: fear of the unknown, rear of a different way of looking at marriage, fear of marriage as an evolving institution. That fear permits conservative radio talk show host James Dobson, head of the virulently antigay Focus on the Family, to tell 2,000 Oregon pastors that the fight against gay marriage "is the Waterloo; figs is the Gettysburg. If lost, it will be like a mirror shattered. Once broken it will not be able to be repaired."

What he and others don't want to happen is to have straight Americans wrapping their minds around same-sex marriage and eventually realizing that gay relationships don't cause society's downfall. When that fear fades from the public mind--as it has from the minds of Labiosa and Barter's neighbors--the foes of gay rights will have lost their war. Many foot soldiers may even wonder what they were ever fighting for.

But the battle will long continue within families across the country. Labiosa has semi firsthand how his marriage has caused a rift in his biological family. His parents, still living in Puerto Rico, refused to attend rite ceremony; his sister walked him down the aisle in their absence. Yet he and Barter regularly fly to the island for holidays and spend time with Labiosa's extended family, and his parents fly to Boston and stay with the couple. "It's just something that takes time," he says. "It's something very different for them."

Many Massachusetts lawmakers apparently need more time to grasp the simple justice of same-sex marriage: On March 29 they narrowly approved a constitutional amendment that could--at the end of a two-year process--strip away same-sex couples' right to marry, while also establishing civil unions.

Gail Leondar-Wright, an out lesbian who runs her own public relations firm and is in a 13-year relationship, spent March 29 watching that legislative debate, televised from Beacon Hill in Boston. The statehouse was packed with partisans from both sides praying, singing, shouting, chanting, and waving placards: HOMOSEXUALS ARE POSSESSED BY DEMONS, said one; CIVIL UNIONS: SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL, said another. When the measure passed, Leondar-Wright said, "I was not devastated, but I was really disappointed. But I can't be really upset because there are still two more years."

February 4 was a much happier day. She was working at home in Arlington, Mass., when her state representative called to give her the news: The supreme judicial court had affirmed the constitutional right for gays and lesbians to marry; civil unions would not be sufficient. Leondar-Wright ran down the street to the coffee shop where her partner, Betsy Leondar-Wright, was working at her laptop computer. Gail was crying as she burst in among the morning rush. "We're getting married," she shouted. Betsy broke into tears at the news, and people at the restaurant cheered for the couple. Gail and Betsy invited everyone present to their wedding, which will take place as soon as licenses are issued.

It has been a long road to a legal relationship for the couple. Gail and Betsy exchanged rings and a promise of lifelong commitment shortly after they began living together in 1991. Three years later they held a commitment ceremony so that their friends and family could join them in celebrating their love for one another. "This is the only wedding I expect to have," Gail wrote to her father at the time. Looking back on the event, she says, "It never occurred to us that we should be fighting for our marriage rights. We always expected to be outlaws." A year after Vermont passed its landmark civil unions law in 2000, they traveled to Chester, Vt., where they were joined in civil union. It gave client no legal rights outside the state of Vermont, but the event was "surprisingly real," Gaff said, "as if something had happened."

Such stories are why the March 29 vote by the Massachusetts legislature left gay rights activists bitter, when only five years ago they would have celebrated the advent of civil rations as a broadening of rights. The Massachusetts vote "stained the history books of this state," says Arline Isaacson of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. The measure must be voted on again in 2005 by lawmakers. If it passes again, it will go before voters in November 2006. One thing is clear. Gay men and lesbians will face years of straggle, not only in Massachusetts but around the nation, as Americans confront the constitutional, cultural, and moral implications of gay marriage.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of New York City-based Freedom to Marry, views the historic surge toward marriage equality as a "civil rights moment" in which the country is finally being forced to grapple with the issue. As with most social movements, there are times when people decide to seize the initiative, he says. The marriages in San Francisco sanctioned by Mayor Gavin Newsom in February were "giving the country an opportunity to line up--not to protest but to get married." He calls it a "priceless opportunity."

Yet Rep. Barney Frank, the openly gay Massachusetts Democrat, disagrees. What happened in San Francisco, he argues, could mean two steps back instead of one step forward. "They were not legal marriages," he says, but rather amounted to a "symbolic protest" that could have the effect of legitimizing civil disobedience as an approach to the issue of gay marriage. Frank says the other side could practice civil disobedience as well, and he is leery of potential resistance from officials who are to issue marriage licenses in Massachusetts. He also worries that couples getting married in San Francisco and returning to their home states could inadvertently create pressure on legislatures and members of Congress to block gay marriage. He preferred to wait for the real firing: "The reality will dissipate all the fears," he says.

Jenny Pizer, senior staff attorney in Los Angeles for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, doesn't agree with Frank but understands the difficult position he is in. "He goes to work every day in one of the most conservative and contentious public bodies in the country," she says. "It's part of his job to stand up against that." What Frank doesn't see, she says, is the transformative power of the images of marriage beamed from San Francisco and elsewhere. "Many people have seen the surprised delight on people's faces," she says. "That has really shifted the way that people think."

The California supreme court will rule in late spring on Newsom's authority to disregard state marriage "laws and allow same-sex marriages. The thousands of couples who were wed are still married, but their marriages exist in legal limbo. Pizer says that California law generally allows marriages in which the qualifications of one of the partners were in violation of the law to stand as long as the violation was not criminal.

Ultimately, the case in California is likely to be decided the way the cases in Vermont and Massachusetts were decided: The court will determine whether the equal protection provisions of the state constitution invalidate the statute that limits marriage to heterosexual couples. Courts in Oregon, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and other states will face the same question. In Oregon the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a suit claiming that gay couples have the right to marriage recognition. The case could be heard as soon as April and could rapidly rise to the state supreme judicial court. The ACLU has also filed a similar suit against the New York State Department of Health.

Meanwhile, Gall and Betsy Leondar-Wright are going ahead with their marriage plans, although Gail says they are reconsidering the theme of the celebration. They had planned to decorate with Massachusetts flags and other Massachusetts paraphernalia to celebrate their state's historic decision to recognize gay marriage. But following approval of the amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Gail is torn. "I'm half proud of my state," she says: proud of the many statements heard on the floor of the Massachusetts house opposing the amendment and of the close margin of the vote. But she is disappointed that the amendment passed. "It's a confusing time," she says.

She speaks for thousands of gay men and lesbians across the nation when she adds: "I'm going to be on the edge of my seat until I'm married."

Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald in Vermont. He won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on gay marriage and is the author of Civil Wars: Gay Marriage in America

RELATED ARTICLE: Tuxes and tales.

The gay marriage documentary Tying The Knot almost tied itself in knots as filmmaker Jim de Seve tried to keep pace with current events. "I started making the movie three years ago." says De Seve of the feature-length film, which debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 2. "Then it grew into this much larger project."

Inspired by his desire to get married to his partner of five years, Kian Tjong (a co-producer on the project), De Seve initially focused on two personal stories: police officer Mickie Mashburn, whose life partner and fellow officer, Lois Marrero, died in the line of duty; and Oklahoma farmer Sam, who is fighting with the relatives of his late partner for control of the farm the two men shared for decades.

"We deliberately tried to track down stories that involved the perfect American icons," says the 37-year-old director, who lives with Tjong in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I really wanted to reach straight people. Most people just don't have a good back ground on the issue."

With current events spiraling out of control, that background became more prominent as the project grew, encompassing the history of marriage, Bush's State of the Union address. the first gay marriages performed in the Netherlands. recent rallies and court decisions here in the United States. and more. "Some call it luck. some call it destiny," he laughs. "We're going to have a tool that sends a message and really helps straight people understand what is at stake for gay people."--Michael Giltz

RELATED ARTICLE: Will he stand in the way?

The passage of the antigay-marriage constitutional amendment in Massachusetts on March 29 began a process that could outlaw same-sex marriage and establish civil unions in the state by late 2006.

That victory in hand, Republican governor Mitt Romney hoped for a stay from the state's supreme judicial court to postpone its May 17 deadline for permitting same-sex marriages. Romney argues that no same-sex weddings should be permitted until the amendment process has run its course.

Massachusetts attorney general Thomas Reilly disagreed and said he will not seek such a slay. That left the governor no access to the court to push his case. As of press time Romney continued to vow that he would find a way to halt the weddings, perhaps by some kind of executive order. It is far from certain that be will succeed, according to most gay rights groups.

Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the group that brought the lawsuit in the original marriage case, premises to fight the request for a stay and tells supporters there is no basis for it. Any other action by the governor would also be subject to speedy legal review.
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Article Details
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Author:Moats, David
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:May 11, 2004
Words:2749
Previous Article:Gay in the White House.
Next Article:Dodging the altar: gay men and lesbians aren't exactly rushing to marry in Canada. Why marriage equality isn't such a big deal up north.
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