Bracing for the backlash

In Massachusetts, some advocates of same-sex marriage are asking whether the cost of progress may be too high.

By Jennifer Buckendorff
Published March 4, 2004 12:22AM (EST)

Diane Palladino and her partner, Ellen Koteen, live in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. The valley includes the towns of Amherst and Northampton, and is known for its five liberal colleges. The National Enquirer once called it "Lesbianville, U.S.A." It would be an understatement to say that right-wing talk radio is not much of a factor in local politics.

Palladino and Koteen have been on the forefront of the culture wars for much of their 24-year relationship. Both have been organizers for feminist causes, like Koteen's past directorship of the Lesbian Education and Health project. And like thousands of valley residents, they were thrilled when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last month that same-sex couples in the state are entitled to the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples. Under the court order, same-sex marriages will become legal on May 17, and they plan to be married soon after.

Still, despite the pervasive sense of joy here, they share something else with many Massachusetts gay-rights advocates: a nagging uneasiness.

The court's decision, and the decision of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to permit gay marriages, have been historic moments of liberation. But now the backlash is taking form, and some see the possibility that the civil rights victory could have a deep downside. In Massachusetts, the Legislature next week is scheduled to consider two state constitutional amendments that would withdraw marriage rights. Koteen called those amendments "frightening."

Nationally, President George W. Bush has proposed a federal constitutional amendment that could take same-sex marriage off the table for years, or generations. Some wonder whether gay marriage will be Sen. John Kerry's Willie Horton issue. One gay Boston resident explains his fears: "I'm afraid that the gay card will be thrown out there, and that in a close election, that could be enough to scare the general population into reelecting Bush, and taking us away from much greater problems that we really should be focusing on."

To this man and others, the same-sex marriage victory in Massachusetts will not necessarily have been worth the fight if it gives the world four more years of a Bush administration. "I'm more than just a gay man," he says. "I have education interests, social interests beyond the gay world, international concerns. I have environmental concerns. On the whole spectrum of my being, I want to see him defeated."

It's a fear that much of the queer community would rather not address. It's politically messy. It's emotionally messy. Even among those who acknowledge the risks of a backlash, few would be willing to say that too much is happening too fast, and that same-sex marriage is a concept that should be delayed. The issue is so sensitive, in fact, that several people interviewed for this story would acknowledge their concerns only anonymously.

"When you're under siege," says one Boston woman, "you don't want to give ammunition to the enemy."

At this time last year, few could have imagined the current political landscape. The case of Goodridge vs. the Department of Public Health was before Massachusetts' high court. And a decision granting marriage rights to same-sex couples was far from a sure thing.

"The decision was due out in July," Koteen says. "Everyone was expecting it in July, so as the months dragged on, there was a lot of anxiety and tension about what does this mean. People involved in it were pretty optimistic -- they felt that the arguments went well. But it's still a shock to the system when it went in our favor ... all of a sudden, feeling like first-class citizens."

In fact, the court's narrow majority ruled in November that existing law left gay and lesbian couples as second-class citizens. The state's ban against same-sex marriage violated guarantees of equality and due process in the state constitution, the court ruled, and it imposed "a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason." The court ordered the Legislature to review state law in light of the decision; after the Legislature passed a law allowing same-sex couples to join in civil unions, the high court issued its monumental ruling last month: Civil unions didn't go far enough.

While Massachusetts has a reputation nationally for its progressive outlook, not all of the state is like Northampton, Jamaica Plain, Somerville and Provincetown -- the traditionally gay neighborhoods and towns. Even though Massachusetts is the land of an eternally elected Ted Kennedy, it's also the place where Republican Mitt Romney became governor.

Mark Carmien lives in Northampton, where he owns Pride & Joy, a gay-themed bookstore. He speaks in a soft, reassuring voice. He's pragmatic about the gay community's concerns.

For some, "there's a feeling of wariness," Carmien says. "It appears that we've won this battle. But the fear is that our Mormon, conservative, Republican governor and our highly conservative speaker of the house [Thomas M. Finneran] will cause a constitutional crisis. This is what we're starting to believe -- that one or both of them will issue an executive order that city clerks are not to allow marriage licenses come May 17.

"Even though the Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled on this, even though they have affirmed what they mean is marriage, not civil unions, on May 17 -- the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark desegregation ruling -- Romney is going to be the George Wallace of the new millennium, standing on the steps of City Hall, saying 'segregation now, segregation always.'"

With eight months left until the election, the timing of the debate is less than ideal for John Kerry, a longtime ally of the gay and lesbian community and now the presumed Democratic presidential nominee. While those opposed to same-sex marriage are unequivocal in their position, Kerry is in a tight box. He can't strongly endorse the idea for fear of political repercussions. For the same reason, he can't strongly oppose the idea.

He voted against President Bill Clinton's Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, one of few in the Senate to do so, and he has firmly opposed Bush's proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution. But he has also endorsed the notion that marriage is for a man and a woman only. Last month, he said he would support a Massachusetts amendment that bars same-sex marriage -- provided that it allows civil unions that give same-sex couples all the rights of marriage.

Gay groups express frustration at Kerry's position, but his strong past support of gay causes isn't likely to win him the hearts of conservatives either. Republicans are doing their best to manipulate the issue, a useful diversion in a time when the front-page stories had been about Bush's war record, the unemployment rate and the ongoing body count in Iraq.

But as Kerry straddles the issue, criticizing Bush for proposing a constitutional amendment while advocating for an amendment in his own state constitution, he risks coming off like a phony. Swing voters may not care about the gay marriage issue, but they could find Kerry's political doublespeak distasteful and disingenuous. Recently, Massachusetts Governor Romney publicly criticized Kerry's "confusing positions on gay marriage."

This past weekend, the Boston Globe published a scathing editorial indictment of John Kerry's gay marriage position. "We can understand why Senator John Kerry would like to neutralize gay marriage as an issue in the presidential election," the editorial read. "Kerry is, of course, free to hold a personal belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. Many people share this view, though public attitudes have come so far so fast that broader acceptance is likely. This is precisely why enshrining a separate, discriminatory status for gays among the state's guarantees of rights is so odious."

While the amendment backed by Bush may prove to be an effective issue for galvanizing Bush's conservative base and peeling moderate support away from Democrats, changing the U.S. Constitution is difficult and few believe it has much chance of passage. And to some extent, that helps allay the concerns among gay-rights supporters in Massachusetts.

"The president doesn't have a vote on the constitutional amendment," says Mark Mead, political director of the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's biggest organization of gays and lesbians in the GOP. "Am I outraged at George Bush? Yes. Do I think he's a compassionate conservative? Doesn't look that way to me. I think the American people will not stand for this eventually. They're not going to stand for amending the Constitution on a transitory social issue."

Still, Mead worries. His concern goes beyond presidential politics to the containment of a bigger societal shift against gay rights. "We understand that there's a potential for backlash here," he says, "and that it is moving very fast -- faster than we ever thought things would move." The damage may come on the presidential level, he said, but it will definitely be a factor in less prominent elections, both at the state and local level.

It's difficult, he suggests, to avoid the conclusion that the push for gay marriage was a big dice roll. "The potential for gain is small," he says, "and the potential for disaster is huge."

Would anyone involved in the same-sex marriage campaign have postponed it, if that were possible? Most in Massachusetts say no -- and a few even find the suggestion offensive. Cindy Turnbull is a lawyer in Springfield, Mass., and she knows one of the seven couples involved with the landmark Goodridge case. Turnbull says that she understands the desire "not to give Bush something helpful."

But at the same time, she says, "I don't think anyone would be saying for any other civil rights issue, 'Gee, isn't it a shame that this is coming up around presidential elections?' People would never utter those words, but for some reason, they seem to be OK talking about gay marriage that way.

"If it weren't for gay marriage," Turnbull says, "it would be for abortion or some other issue. There's always an issue that one group wants to bring up and they use to raise funds or to generate voter motivation."

And so there is in many quarters a sense of resolve, colored by pessimism -- a sense that history sometimes takes two steps forward and one step back. Things will in time be better for the gay community, many say. Gay marriage will be an accepted social norm. Gay relationships and families will be respected by most Americans. Eventually.

Like Ellen Koteen, in the Pioneer Valley, many console themselves that in the long run, however long the backlash lasts, it will be temporary. Still, Koteen says, "whenever emotional antitheses are being generated against who you are, it's scary."

Vickie Henry, co-chair of the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association, seems ready for the backlash. Before the Goodridge decision, she explained, "we couldn't get married. Now [if one of the amendments pass] there's something that expressly says we can't get married. I'm not sure that's really a whole lot worse.

"A year ago here in Massachusetts, there was not even a chance of passing civil unions. Now, because we've asked for marriage, and we've been awarded marriage by the court, it looks like one of the possibilities we could end up with is civil unions. Which would be an advance in Massachusetts over where we have been."

"It's certainly interesting," agrees Matt Coles, director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Now you hear so many moderate Democratic and Republican voices saying they're all for civil unions, but that's a new song. It's only being sung, I think, as the possibility of marriage gets more and more real. Domestic partnerships didn't begin to become a mainstream alternative until there was a really hard push for marriage."

"The thing that I always say to myself, over and over again, is that happily -- at least in this country -- we cannot be legislated out of existence," Henry says. "I don't think we're going to be rounded up and put into camps. The worst-case scenario is that we end up right where we started. If our opponents are successful in putting discrimination into the Constitution, it will be more work later to get it overturned. But we will. What choice do we have? We're fighting for our lives. We're fighting for our rights.

"We are moving forward," she says. "I think that we will have civil unions, and I think people will notice when the Commonwealth does not fall into the ocean. We could ultimately end up with more rights than we have right now."

But what if the worst-case scenario comes to pass? What if discrimination is codified in state laws or in the U.S. Constitution, and the result for the foreseeable future is no gay marriage, and no civil recognition of any kind? What if same-sex marriage proves a decisive campaign issue and Bush is reelected?

"Civil rights movements don't get to pick and choose their timing," says Winnie Stachelberg, political director for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign. "They just get to decide what they make of the issues and the challenges they've been presented with."

Vickie Henry is similarly philosophical. "If there was a backlash," she asks, "will it have been worth it? It depends on who you ask, but I would say: Absolutely, yes. To have the Massachusetts Supreme Court -- the oldest court in the country -- come forward and say that we are equal citizens and we need to be and must be treated equally. To have that start, to have that beginning, was absolutely worth it."

Jennifer Buckendorff

Jennifer Buckendorffis a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, Washington.

MORE FROM Jennifer Buckendorff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Gay Marriage George W. Bush John F. Kerry D-mass.