DOMA's legal effects were theoretical when it was passed in 1996, and became real with the gradually growing prevalence of marriage equality, which started here in Massachusetts. In 2004 we had the country's first legal same sex marriages, and Cambridge City Hall opened at midnight on the day that became allowed, to be the first to grant licenses.
Yesterday we had a gathering (smaller and shorter due to happening on only a half day's notice) on the same City Hall lawn to celebrate those same marriages getting federal recognition. One of the people who spoke was state representative Carl Sciortino, who earlier that day officially kicked off his campaign for Congress. He's running to replace Ed Markey, who'd just won election to the US Senate the previous day.
With 12 states - including 4 added in the past year - it's getting harder to remember what it was like the first few years after Massachusetts, when it was Massachusetts (and Vermont's civil unions) vs. the entire rest of the country. In 2008 when California legalized same sex marriage, it was only the second state to do so, and Prop 8 overturned it later that year. In the meantime, every election, several more states passed anti-marriage amendments.
When thinking back to those years, what a lot of people don't appreciate is that Massachusetts wasn't a done deal, and that it wasn't just a court decision; we had to win this at the ballot too, several times over. By that day in May 2004 when the first licenses were granted, Massachusetts' legislature had already voted to ban gay marriage 105-92, a few months earlier.
The fight to defeat that amendment lasted four more years, only finally settled in 2007, the year before California.
Massachusetts fortunately requires a proposed constitutional amendment to pass a vote in two successive legislatures before it goes on the statewide ballot. What that means is that legislators vote on each proposed amendment twice, with an election in between. I think that's brilliant, because it means a proposed amendment can be a campaign issue, and we know the incumbent's position because they already voted on it. MassEquality hired its first full time staffer after the court decision in 2003.
In September 2004, two incumbent state representatives fell in primaries. Incumbents losing primaries is unusual, so when two lost in the same year, the fact that both of them voted to ban gay marriage and both of their successful challengers campaigned in support of gay marriage was noticed. Both winning challengers were MassEquality-endorsed, as was a write-in candidate who won an open seat even though there were candidates on the ballot. And the fact that one of the incumbents who lost had been in office for 16 years, and the candidate who beat him was gay, made it especially noticeable. At the state house, someone overheard one anti-lgbt-rights legislator say to another, "they're coming for us."
Shortly after the election, three anti-lgbt-rights state representatives resigned to take other jobs. Maybe it was a coincidence, and perhaps the fear of MassEquality-supported primary challenges had nothing to do with their decisions. What certainly wasn't a coincidence is that in special elections to replace them in early 2005, all three winners were supporters of marriage equality. In one of those races, no candidate wanted to ban gay marriage. Marriage opponents did run in the other two races, but none of them did better than third place, so in all three races, both the winner and the #2 were supporters of equality.
Then came the big showdown: A state senator representing a mixed district of socially liberal and conservative areas (Somerville/Medford/Winchester/Woburn) died of cancer, and a special election was held in the summer of 2005. It was the only election in the state at that time for any office above municipal level, and a diverse field of four candidates were all expected to have reasonable chances of winning. All of the state's political groups and most Boston area activists got involved.
In the end, liberal champion Pat Jehlen, who was MassEquality's choice, won a huge, resounding victory, by a much higher margin than anyone had expected. The one candidate who directly campaigned against gay marriage came in a distant fourth place. The contrast was loud.
That fall, the legislature voted on the same marriage amendment for the second time: 39 in favor, 157 against. From 53% in 2004, down to 20% in 2005!
Massachusetts allows an amendment to be initiated by a petition, rather than by the legislature. In that case, it still needs to pass in two successive legislatures, but it only needs 25% to "pass". When the first, legislator-initiated amendment, flopped, lgbt rights opponents ran a petition and submitted a new amendment in 2006, written specifically to garner >25% support in the legislature. They succeeded - barely - winning about 30% of the first vote. But the 2006 election whittled marriage-ban legislators' numbers further, and the final vote in the summer of 2007 again fell short of 25%, like the one in 2005. June 14th, 2007, was when this fight was finally settled. [ Here are my photos from the state house that day ]
What accounted for such a huge flip in such a short time?
Some legislators had strong personal feelings on the issue. Some were committed to banning gay marriage, while others actively supported but, and some of the former did change their minds. But many more were in the middle, not personally committed either way. Some of them voted the way they thought their constituents wanted, and others voted based on what they thought would least risk their job, or their chance to run for higher office. Although we replaced several equality opponents with supporters in elections between the 2004 & 2005 votes, the biggest change between the 53% vote in 2004 and the 20% vote in 2005 was the political climate.
In 2004, voting to ban gay marriage was considered the "safe" position. Voting against the amendment took political courage.
In 2005, we'd proven the reverse: Vote to ban gay marriage, and you'll get a primary challenger, your job will be at risk, and your chances of running for higher office will be shot. Voting in support of equality, on the other hand, was not only politically safe, but also gained you valuable support (fundraising, volunteers, organizational help) in future campaigns.
In 2006, we continued to prove it and reinforce it, and even the second amendment designed to get as much support as possible fell below 25%.
Carl Sciortino, the state rep who kicked off his run for Congress yesterday morning, was one of the people who started that process. When his state representative refused to support marriage equality, Carl decided to run for office, and he was the challenger who beat a 16 year incumbent in September 2004.
I'm going to post more about him another day soon.