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Marriage Is Paramount, Gays Agree

Couples who forced the legalization issue in Massachusetts say they want the rights and benefits conferred only through wedlock.

March 07, 2004|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — On the appointed day -- March 21, 2001 -- seven carefully selected couples fanned out across Massachusetts to apply for marriage licenses.

At Boston's city hall, Ed Balmelli remembered, the clerk looked up and asked: "Where is the bride?" Balmelli smiled at his partner, Mike Horgan, and replied: "There is no bride."

After all seven same-sex couples were denied licenses, they filed a lawsuit, and two years later won the right to marry. The couples were overjoyed when the state's highest court ruled that Massachusetts must begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses in May. This decision, making Massachusetts the first state to legalize gay and lesbian marriage, touched off an impassioned debate that has polarized the nation.

The concept of men marrying men and women marrying women has infuriated many religious groups and prompted President Bush to call for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

Marriage in America is far from a perfect institution. The average first marriage lasts only seven years, and close to half of all marriages end in divorce. Of those who remarry within five years, at least 60% will end up divorced again.

Despite that picture, Horgan and Balmelli have always wanted to wed.

Balmelli said he and Horgan come from big families made even larger by in-laws. "We want to be the same as our brothers and sisters, our nieces, our nephews, our parents," said Balmelli, 43. "We want to be married."

The couple wear wedding rings, and three years ago traveled to Vermont for a civil union ceremony -- the closest thing to legal recognition they could hope for at the time. Both men say it is not enough.

"It has always been our premise that we are in this thing until we have marriage and full equality," said Horgan, 44.

They said their need for marriage became apparent several years ago when their friend Mark died at home and his partner, Ken, was barred by law from claiming the body. Determined to safeguard their partnership, Horgan and Balmelli had their lawyer draw up yet another document -- this one with the gloomy title "Declaration as to Remains." But despite their efforts to anticipate every possible threat to their partnership, Balmelli said, they worried "that there would always be one more document that we needed -- or worse, that the ones we had would not be recognized."

They concluded that marriage was the only thing that could protect them as a couple, all the way to the grave. In 2001 they went to the Boston office of GLAD, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, to seek advice. Soon they found themselves talking to Mary Bonauto, an attorney in GLAD's Boston office.

When she began work at the GLAD office in 1990, Bonauto, 42, recalled, the first case waiting on her desk was a request from a lesbian couple in western Massachusetts who wanted to get married. Bonauto said no -- the time was not right

But as she monitored thousands of calls to GLAD's legal hotline over the next 10 years, it became clear to Bonauto that "for about half of the people who call, their legal problems would go away if they could marry."

Beginning in 1993, when Hawaii's highest court ruled that laws denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated the state constitution, Bonauto kept careful tabs on how courts and legislatures around the country were viewing same-sex marriage. Along with two Vermont lawyers, she argued the case that in 2000 generated the nation's only civil union law.

In choosing Massachusetts as the next legal battleground, Bonauto looked at factors "as disparate as what the culture is like." In Massachusetts, she said, "it is hard to go anywhere without running into gay and lesbian families."

In the 2000 census, 100% of Massachusetts counties reported gay and lesbian households among their population -- slightly above the 99.3% of U.S. counties that said they had same-sex couples.

Bonauto interviewed more than 100 same-sex couples from across Massachusetts in order to find a mix of potential plaintiffs. Four of the seven couples who jointly filed the lawsuit -- now known as Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health -- were female, and three were male. Some had children and at least one of the plaintiffs was previously married to a member of the opposite sex. Their ages ranged from early 30s to late 60s. They were racially and professionally diverse.

Most of all, Bonauto said she relied on "my own gut check" as she sought plaintiffs with the fortitude to withstand media scrutiny and the flexibility to participate in a protracted court fight.

Horgan and Balmelli said they thought for "maybe about 40 seconds" before joining the lawsuit. Like their fellow plaintiffs, the pair wanted to obtain more than 1,000 rights and benefits associated with marriage.

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