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In Boston, it's live and let live / Many unfazed by same-sex marriages

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

May 16, 2004

2004-05-16 Boston -- West Broadway Street in South Boston, lined with Irish pubs and Catholic churches, should not by appearances be the most hospitable place for gays and lesbians, particularly given that on Monday, men will be able to marry men and women marry women.

But the prevailing sentiment seems to be live and let live -- and this may explain why, if Massachusetts is the same-sex marriage Dunkirk that religious conservatives say it is, not only has the battle been lost, but also perhaps the war.

Despite the most ferocious political debate to shake the Massachusetts statehouse in decades -- including an all-out campaign by the Catholic archdiocese that included a video shown at Sunday masses across the state -- same-sex marriages are going forward on Monday. They will be the first such legally approved unions in U.S. history affirmed by a state's top court.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that barring gays and lesbians from civil marriage violated the state's constitution and ordered the ban to cease by May 17.

After a heated constitutional convention and intense lobbying on both sides -- including Catholic Archbishop Sean O'Malley in his Franciscan robes addressing a rally on the Boston Commons -- the state Legislature, close to 70 percent of whose members are Catholic, narrowly approved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, while allowing civil unions.

Washington National Cathedral Photo by Carolyn Lochhead

But the amendment requires a second legislative approval next year, followed by a vote of the people. The soonest such a vote could occur is November 2006. Until then at least, gays and lesbians are guaranteed full marriage rights in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

That this famously liberal place, the only state to vote for George McGovern for president in 1972, should be first shocks no one. Nearby are the sylvan confines of Cambridge, Boston's Berkeley, where peace and rainbow flags hang from doorways and a Unitarian Universalist pastor last year presided over the union of a "polyamorous" threesome.

But in this gritty South Boston neighborhood, the flags tend to be American, the churches Roman, and the murals declare, "Ireland Unfree Will Never Be at Peace."

Yet a man with a day-old stubble, standing in the doorway of an automatic laundry, offered that the only reason people oppose lesbians and gays marrying is because they are scared and insecure -- just as he was before he started working with gay people at a hotel.

"I used to be like that," he said, refusing to give his name because it's still a "touchy subject" around here.

"I used to be prejudiced," he said. "I had no idea who gays were, and everybody else was hating them, so I did, too."

But now he views gays as he does others. "To each his own," he said. "I have nothing against them. They're good people, you know."

"I was raised Catholic," he noted. "Who are they to say? The only thing I'm against is them having kids. It seems wrong." He paused, and added, "But eventually, I'll probably get over that, too."

Which is not to say everyone in South Boston favors same-sex marriage. Many clearly do not. Some objected to four unelected judges dictating social change. Several older men became sullen when asked, finding the idea wrong and unnatural.

At the Quiet Man Pub, though, where a sign on the window says, "America, Love It or Leave It," the prevailing attitude among patrons was distinctly live and let live. The marriage issue provokes only good-natured joking.

Patron John Robertson, a probation officer, summed up his view by recalling a trip a few years ago to San Francisco: "Every time I saw two guys together, I said, 'Hey, that's two more chicks for me.' You go in a nightclub, and it's like shooting fish in a barrel. I'm no Cary Grant, but even I got lucky out there."

With local papers carrying pictures of a beheaded U.S. businessman in Iraq and a scandal about nuns allegedly molesting students at a school for the deaf years ago, Robertson, like many, said there are more important things to worry about than same-sex marriage. He said Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican and a Mormon, is the only one making a big deal out of same-sex marriage.

Much the same attitude prevailed in Amerhein's pub down the street, where Joe, an older man who wouldn't give his last name, said, "People are entitled to live their own lives the way they want to live them. People always have moral and ethical issues, but when it comes to their own lives, they want to do what they want to do. They don't want someone else telling them."

Asked whether homosexuals were imposing their will on society, as opponents often charge, he shot back, "They're not. All they're looking for is the benefit to be united with someone else under the law. I don't think that's unreasonable."

It didn't help Archbishop O'Malley's case, several noted, that the archdiocese had just settled millions of dollars worth of sexual molestation lawsuits. "After a good year of pedophilia, they needed to turn the spotlight somewhere else," offered John Connelly at the Quiet Man.

Over in the rather tonier South End, Robert Hale, an attorney sitting at the elegant and very gay Club Cafe, said the views of South Boston reflect the "oil and water" mix of New England-style libertarianism.

"Generally, the vast majority of people say if two of you want to live together and raise kids, then great, do it," Hale said. "What you find in South Boston is what the majority of the people in the state say."

Even the fiercest opponents of same-sex marriage concede it may be too strong a social force to stop.

Ron Crews, who headed the Massachusetts Family Institute and spearheaded the drive to ban same-sex marriage, acknowledged that what will happen Monday is "a big disappointment."

Crews, a former state representative from Georgia, where he wrote that state's Defense of Marriage Act, is now running for Congress in Massachusetts. He also acknowledged that the reality of at least two years of gay and lesbian marriages could permanently alter the debate.

"That becomes the unknown," Crews said. "What will the political landscape look like when it's time for the people to vote on this issue, when they've had two years of people receiving these licenses?"

Two years may not provide enough time to prove that same-sex marriage undermines traditional marriage, he said. Moreover, some couples married in Massachusetts are expected to move eventually to other states and demand that their marriages be recognized. Challenges are also expected to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman and limits all federal marital benefits in areas such as taxation, Social Security and immigration to married heterosexual couples.

A court case could conceivably reach the U.S. Supreme Court by the time the issue reaches Massachusetts voters, if it reaches them.

Crews said state polling data consistently showed that more than a majority of voters oppose same-sex marriage. National polls show similar results. But as Crews acknowledged, that could change once people get used to the idea.

Polls also reflect what is clearly evident on the streets of South Boston: The acceptance of same-sex marriage is much stronger among young people, and among those who know gay people, both of whom are twice as likely to favor same-sex marriage as older people or those who have no contact with gays.

The attorney who won the case, Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said this court of public opinion is what ultimately matters.

"It's that much more important to really engage the public, so that they understand and support this," Bonauto said, "because ultimately, the public can undo this."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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