NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WOMENSENEWS)–Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the Boston-based legal team known as GLAD, has two marriage-equality victories behind it in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Now it is pursuing a "6 by 12" strategy, meaning it hopes to win equal marriage rights in all six New England states by 2012.
Carissa Cunningham, the group’s director of public affairs, says it chose 2012 because it seemed the soonest realistic date based on political realities in the four remaining states: Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. In Rhode Island, for instance, the current governor opposes same-sex marriage and a new governor will come into office that year.
Cunningham says GLAD, a nonprofit law firm, will continue its multi-pronged approach of offering legal expertise to legislators and policymakers and working through its partner organizations in each state to educate candidates, voters and legislators about marriage equality.
On Jan. 13 Dennis S. Damon, a state senator in Maine, announced that he will draft a bill to repeal Maine’s Defense of Marriage Act, which limits marriage to a man and woman. Cunningham says her group is organizing support for that bill, along with a coalition of Maine groups.
GLAD is also supporting marriage bills in the legislatures of Vermont and New Hampshire–the New England states it considers most receptive to equal marriage rights–while working on public education campaigns in other states.
GLAD’s work is particularly significant for lesbians, who are more likely than gay men to marry and register domestic partnerships to secure legal rights. They are also more likely to have children.
Connecting to California
Cunningham thinks the push in New England could help activists in California who are trying to regroup after voters passed Proposition 8 in November. That initiative declared marriage only as between a man and a woman and nullified the California Supreme Court’s decision in May 2008 in favor of same-sex marriage rights.
"There are hopeful developments that inspire people and then there are really bad things that happen, like Proposition 8, that also inspire people and get them activated," Cunningham said. "Both of these things are going on simultaneously in our country right now, and I think they engage people in different ways and bring people to the table."
In October Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders scored a major victory when the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Kerrigan v. Connecticut Department of Public Health that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
Connecticut and Massachusetts are now the only two states where same-sex marriage is legal. Civil unions are legal in Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey and California, and technically still remain on the books in Connecticut. New York recognizes same-sex civil unions and same-sex marriages performed in other states.
After the Connecticut General Assembly passed a civil union law in 2005, same-sex marriage advocates continued to push for full marriage rights.
Civil unions restrict couples from filing joint federal taxes or taking family leave under federal law, and activists often argue that marriage is a more respectful description of same-sex partnerships.
Lawsuits Started in 2004
In 2004 six lesbian couples and two gay male couples filed a lawsuit after they were denied marriage licenses in Connecticut. They were represented by GLAD, which the year before had also won the court victory in Massachusetts, which has so far issued 11,000 same-sex marriage licenses.
One of the Connecticut plaintiffs is Barb Levine-Ritterman, who had a civil union ceremony back in 2005 with Robin Levine-Ritterman, her domestic partner of 20 years.
Barb Levine-Ritterman says she suffered the limits of her civil union after undergoing cancer treatments a few years earlier. When she went to the hospital for follow-up care, an intake worker asked her marital status. When she answered "civil union" the woman said, "There’s no place for that in the computer. I’ll put you down as single."
The couple hasn’t set a wedding date, but she says it’s an important milestone for the entire family, including their 11-year-old son. "For Joshua, civil union did not compute. If someone said to him, ‘Two moms can’t get married,’ he couldn’t say, ‘What? They’ve been civilized? Unionized? Civilly united?’ Now he’s going to be able to say, ‘My moms are married.’"
In Connecticut supporters not only pressed a legal case while pursuing legislation, they also opposed a constitutional convention that could open the possibility of putting a same-sex marriage ban before the voters.
The court acted first, issuing its ruling on Oct. 10, 2008.
Election Day Detour
But before the court ruling could go into effect on Nov. 12 advocates faced a threat on Election Day the week before.
Every 20 years, voters in Connecticut must decide whether the Legislature should convene a constitutional convention and the matter was already on the state ballot. Groups such as the Connecticut Catholic Conference and the Family Institute of Connecticut, both based in Hartford, were promoting a "yes" vote as a route to placing a same-sex marriage ban on the ballot.
Love Makes a Family, an equal marriage advocacy group based in Hartford, Conn., called for a "no" vote to protect equal marriage.
The question was defeated by 20 percentage points.
Love Makes a Family had also been working for eight years to build support at the grassroots level and in the Connecticut General Assembly, says Anne Stanback, its founding executive director. Once the equal-marriage lawsuit was filed, her group began working closely with GLAD.
Stanback says the road to marriage equality in the state was paved with creative approaches.
Activists invited almost all the state legislators to house meetings with same-sex couples along with their straight allies. It was important, she says, for straight people to insist that granting equal rights to lesbians and gays would not diminish their own civil rights or threaten them in any way. Other key players were progressive members of the clergy, who showed elected officials that people of faith were not just on the opposing side.
Neither the Family Institute of Connecticut nor the Connecticut Catholic Conference returned phone calls seeking comment. A statement on the Catholic Conference’s Web site criticizes the state Supreme Court decision. "The real battle in this court case was not about rights, since civil unions provide a vast number of legal rights to same-sex couples, but about conferring and enforcing social acceptance of a particular lifestyle; a lifestyle many people of faith and advocates of the natural law refuse to accept."
Stanback said she’s confident activists will be able to protect same-sex marriage from any attempts to undo it in the 2009 legislative session, since they now have enough lawmakers on their side.
Melinda Tuhus is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Conn. She reports on gender issues, the environment and other social concerns.