The political process produced a decisive victory for marriage equality a week ago when the Massachusetts legislature voted to reject a constitutional amendment that would have restricted marriage to unions between a man and a woman.
Democracy does not provide crisp, clean victories on issues involving clashing values and shifting attitudes. Real and lasting change does not come with the stroke of a pen.
The struggle for gay marriage has been under way for decades now, and only in recent years have public attitudes undergone the kind of transformation that would allow an elected legislature to side with their gay and lesbian constituents and their supporters seeking equal marriage rights.
Even the terms of the debate have shifted. Gay marriage is the common term for the goal of freedom-to-marry advocates. But advocates for gay marriage insist they don't want gay marriage — a special category of marriage for gay people. They want marriage. Over time it has become more widely understood that what the advocates of gay marriage are talking about is marriage equality or freedom to marry.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick put the issue in a larger context on Thursday. "Today's vote is not just a vote for marriage equality," he said. "It was a vote for equality itself."
It has been a long road, from the early stirrings of the gay rights movement in the 1960s and '70s, through the valley of death during the AIDS epidemic, and to the maturity of the movement in the 1990s as it moved into the consciousness of mainstream America.
Vermont took a pioneering step in 2000 in response to the Supreme Court's ruling in the Baker case, establishing for the first time in the nation civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy understood the importance of putting the question through the complex machinery of the political process, giving to the Legislature the decision of whether to enact marriage equality or civil unions. The process was wrenching, but it yielded a result stamped with and strengthened by the democratic process.
Then the battle moved elsewhere. In 2003 the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts went a step further than the Vermont court, ruling that only marriage, not civil unions, satisfied the equal rights provisions of the state constitution. But the court ruling was not the end of the political process. It was the beginning. Opponents of gay marriage mounted an effort to pass a constitutional amendment negating the court's ruling in the Goodridge case and restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.
That amendment went down to defeat on Thursday. As in Vermont, the battle has been wrenching. In the meantime, advocates have won other battles, gaining civil unions by legislative action in Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire. These victories have come even as opponents of gay marriage have won approval in state after state for laws or amendments forbidding gay marriage.
In Massachusetts, as in Vermont, supporters of marriage equality gained ground when they put a human face on their cause. Gay and lesbian residents told stories about the relationships that mattered to them, about family, loyalty, commitment. When confronted with the human reality of gay relationships, it happens again and again that fear recedes.
There is always fear. But the shadow fear casts has diminished as Massachusetts gave us a victory on Thursday for equality itself.
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