Opinion: What The Marriage Equality Struggle Taught Us About Making Change

Photo: pxhere.com. Creative commons

Stan Rosenberg

 On November 8, 2003, I was in my State House office when I heard the news that nearly knocked me out of my chair.  The State Supreme Judicial Court had ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry.  A battle waged for many years had finally been won.  For a moment, it was pure joy.

 Then reality hit us like a bucket of ice over the head.  Within hours, our opponents were threatening both legal and legislative action.

 For the next four-plus years, we fought to protect that court decision from assaults too many to count.  As a community and as legislators, we had to buckle down, fight harder, and play smarter than ever before.  In so doing, we successfully engaged the democratic process on its terms, to protect the profound change we had achieved through the courts.

 The story of how we did it reveals many essential lessons to be learned if one seeks to affect change now and in the future.  Here are those lessons.

 All Three Branches of Government Can Be Engaged to Make Change
The Goodrich v. Department of Public Health ruling underscored a valuable lesson: courts often lead in civil rights matters. It’s essential to engage them when appropriate. But, of course, the executive and legislative branches play a role, too. 

 In our case, Governor Mitt Romney immediately tried to delay the ruling’s implementation.  House Speaker Tom Finneran and Senate President Robert Travaglini , along with others, advanced constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.  Those amendments led to highly contested constitutional conventions in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007.   

 When battling for change, be ready to wage war or seek redress on all fronts – executive, legislative, and judicial. 

Legislative Sophistication Matters, Part I: Winning Our First Crucial Vote
To add an amendment to the state constitution, proponents need to win approval in two constitutional conventions — joint sessions of the House and Senate – in two successive legislative terms.  If they succeed, then the question goes to the ballot for the voters to decide.   It’s not a process for the faint of heart, but our opponents were undeterred.  Just three months after the court ruling, a constitutional convention convened to consider their amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.  

 Early on the convention’s first day, five other legislators and I met in Room 348 of the State House to plan and prepare for the challenging day ahead.  Two hundred senators and representatives would fill the convention; we numbered just six.  The governor, senate president, and house speaker all opposed us.  Our supporters were rank and file progressives, mostly without leadership positions.

 Minutes after the convention began, House leaders moved for a quick vote on an amendment to overturn the Court’s same-sex marriage ruling.  It was an audacious move – trying to jam home a constitutional amendment just minutes after the session convened.  

While debate began, our band of six fanned out in a mad scramble for votes.  We quickly rounded up our hard-core supporters, then cajoled the undecideds and propped up the wavering.  When we sure we had corralled the necessary votes, we promptly called for the vote, fearing that our opponents would strong-arm supporters away from us if they had more time.  When the roll call ended, a small miracle had indeed occurred: We had stopped the amendment. 

Suddenly, we had believers.  When we returned to Room 348, we found scores of legislators ready to celebrate the victory.  As the chief legislative strategist, I encouraged them to savor the win but to be prepared to work even harder in the days ahead.  Our opponents knew we had jerry-rigged a majority in part by capturing conservative senators who were offended by the aggressive maneuvering of House leaders.  The opposition surely knew how to pry apart such a delicate coalition.    

Throughout the four-year battle,  we had many “near-death” experiences, but we survived each one.  We knew the rules, had smart strategies, and, after that initial victory, had supporters who believed in us.

Legislative Sophistication Matters, Part II:  Bold Strategies Required
After our first win, our task became even thornier.  Alliances changed.  Compromises were floated.  One day, amid these shifts, we convened a coalition meeting at the Unitarian Church offices near the State House.  Leading the session, I told our members we needed to vote yes on a compromise amendment that softened the original language, in part by allowing for civil unions.  We had no interest in supporting any constitutional amendment – with or without civil unions.  Still, we feared our opponents had the votes for the more draconian amendment.  We had to block that measure at all costs, including voting for the softer-language amendment we didn’t support. 

 Some legislators were perplexed.  They argued that we were paving the way for an amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman and to make civil unions constitutional as well. Somewhat exasperated, I went to the chalkboard and drew a Pac-Man figure.  To survive, I told them, the Pac-Man gobbles many dots before getting a chance to scarf up the larger, flashing blue dots that score big points.  In the same way, we had to swallow a “bad” amendment so that we could eventually gobble up our flashing blue prize – defeating the discriminatory amendment once and for all. The “yes, yes, no” strategy, as it came to be known, meant we had to vote yes on a bad amendment, yes to send it to the next convention, and then no on the final showdown vote – whether to send it to the ballot.   

 Our strategy was clear, but we still faced formidable obstacles, given that our opponents controlled the process.  They often sprung surprise votes, hoping to catch us flat-footed.  We had little ability to communicate with legislative supporters quickly — smartphones, of course, didn’t exist, and cell phone calls were prohibited on the floor.  Then, we had a realization: pagers were allowed.  We could arm our 50 core supporters with beepers, and when the roll was called, we’d send a simple instruction – “1” meant vote yes, “2” vote no.  One crucial problem solved.

Legislative Sophistication Matters, Part III:  Stick to the Strategy
In January of 2007,  a new constitutional convention convened, this time to consider the civil union amendment we had supported.  If it secured the votes required, the question would go to the voters – our worst nightmare.   Across the country, same-sex marriage always lost when the question was put to the voters.  Even in Massachusetts, testing electoral waters seemed risky.   Our “yes, yes, no” strategy was about to be put to the test.   

 With so much on the line, tension-filled the State House corridors on convention day.  Adding to our nervousness: for procedural reasons, we needed a supermajority of 151 votes, many more than we had ever secured.

 We had two factors in our favor: public sentiment had shifted in our favor now that hundreds of same-sex couples had married.  And with Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and State Senator Sal DiMasi now in place, we had allies in the big-three positions.    

The debate was relatively brief – everyone knew the arguments for and against. The roll was called.  The amendment lost, 151-45.  

 We had won.  We had made sure outright discriminatory language never stained our state’s constitution, the oldest in the nation.  The opponents of same-sex marriage never tried again.

 Grassroots Mobilization Is Crucial 
Legislative know-how is crucial, but grassroots pressure is indispensable.  Our broad coalition of LBGTQ, civil rights, and religious activists mobilized volunteers to pressure every undecided or wavering legislator we could find.  And when the constitutional conventions convened, supporters filled the gallery, crowded the hallways, and buttonholed representatives and senators. Legislators got the message: these votes were not without political consequences.  That pressure never let up.  

Perhaps Most Important: Persistence Matters
Social change takes time.  Great crusades like the women’s suffrage movement or the civil rights battle of the 1960s required relentless effort, working over many years.  Starting in 1973, it took our community 16 years to pass a necessary LGBTQ civil rights bill in Massachusetts.  And eighteen years later, we put the final nail in the coffin of same-sex marriage opposition.  And eight years after that, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage the law of the land.  

 Perseverance and persistence matter, above all else.

 Our journey started with the courage of eight couples, and the sober and deep reflection of Court, then shifted to a robust public debate and ended with the Great and General Court – the legislature – rejecting discriminatory amendments and embracing equity and justice.

 The institutions of self-governing do indeed work. The tools of democracy, in the hands of courageous and committed people, can change our world. Never forget the lessons we learned during this epic fight: be prepared to fight on all fronts, worker harder and smarter than your opposition, and never stop battling.  Change never comes quickly, until suddenly it does, and, in this case, a more just and equitable Commonwealth is realized.  The system really does work.

Amherst Resident Stan Rosenberg is past President of the Massachusetts Senate.

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