Editors' Note: Guest blogger Sue Hyde is a Massachusetts resident and longtime staffer at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Some folk say, "You can't get they-ah from hee-ah." But in the great region of New England, we know different and better. As the New Hampshire marriage reform bill rests on the desk of Gov. John Lynch and as the ink dries on the Maine marriage reform bill just signed by Gov. John Baldacci, no informed New Englander awoke in surprise and shock at the region's rapid expansion of marriage equality. Rather, we awoke in joy and satisfaction that our states continue a long tradition of bending the arc of history toward justice.
The people of the six New England states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island serve as the craftspeople of the art of our democracy: heating the metals of social change to malleability and then smiting them into the shape of social justice. The crafts, tools and skills of the New England blacksmiths of justice are wielded with fierceness of determination and vision of a people longing to be free and equal partners in civic life.
Some examples from the forge:
- In 1635, Boston Latin School is established as the first public school in America.
- In 1636, Roger Williams flees Massachusetts, having been banished for "new and dangerous opinions" calling for religious and political freedoms, including separation of church and state; Williams settles in Rhode Island, which becomes a haven for many other colonists fleeing religious intolerance.
- In 1639, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut are drafted. Many historians credit this document as the basis for the United States Constitution.
- In 1697, the Massachusetts General Court (legislature) expresses official repentance regarding the actions of its judges during the witch hysteria of 1692.
- In 1777, Vermont abolishes slavery, followed by all New England states in 1784.
- In 1833, the first public library in the United States opens in Peterborough, N.H.
- In 1837, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts is founded, the first four-year college exclusively for women in the United States. Mt. Holyoke was followed Wellesley and Smith colleges, both in 1875.
- In 1841, Frederick Douglass is hired by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society as a full-time lecturer, to agitate for the abolition of slavery.
- In 1844, women textile workers in Massachusetts organize the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) and demand a 10-hour workday; LFLRA is one of the first permanent labor associations for working women in the United States.
- In 1948, Maine's Margaret Chase Smith is elected to the U.S. Senate, making her the first woman to ever be voted into this office and also the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress.
- In 1989, Massachusetts becomes the second state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
- In 2000, 2,000 Vermont legislators invent a status called "civil union" that grants legal recognition to same-sex couples.
- In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rules that barring same-sex couples from marrying violates the state Constitution. Legal marriages commence in May 2004.
- In 2008, the Supreme Court of Connecticut rules that same-sex couples have the right to marry. Legal marriages commence later that year.
- In 2009, the Vermont Legislature votes to override Gov. Jim Douglas' veto of a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry and converting civil unions to marriages.
- In 2009, Maine, acting without court order, enacts marriage reform law that will allow same-sex couples to marry.
- In 2009, the New Hampshire legislature passes marriage reform legislation; Gov. John Lynch must decide to sign the legislation, allow it to become law without his signature, or to veto it.
What can be expected from Rhode Island, the lone outlier in New England, with regard to marriage equality? Ironically, the state that was founded as a bastion of religious freedoms and separation of church and state is stuck between rocks and a good place. The rocks are Gov. Donald Carcieri and Bishop Thomas Tobin, Catholic leader of Rhode Island. Carcieri has affiliated himself with the group that produces the kookiest anti-gay marriage ads, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Carcieri and his wife, Sue, announced their support for NOM's goals to oppose marriage equality at a press conference in April. Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence warns of what he described as the consequences of allowing same-sex couples to marry in an article published in the Rhode Island Catholic. "Gay marriage, or civil unions, would mean that our state is in the business of ratifying, approving such immoral activity," intoned Tobin.
Meanwhile, the Rhode Island marriage advocates, led by Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), continue to organize to win the legislative votes to pass marriage reform, which they believe they are close to winning. Legislative support is the good place where MERI's hopes for change can be found. (Roger Williams may be rolling over in his grave at these efforts by both Carcieri and Tobin to ensure that their personal religious views on marriage remain public policy in Williams' home state.)
Even though Maine's legislative victory will, in all probability, face the "people's veto," a statewide referendum effort to repeal the marriage reform law, and even though Rhode Island advocates may yet be a governor's race away from achieving marriage equality, these delays amount to no more than some substandard, low-temperature iron in the forge of democracy. The hammers strike and smite; the world changes; and New England endures as a beacon of social justice. We can all get they-ah from hee-ah.