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Massachusetts lives happily with same-sex marriage law

Many say the practical and emotional benefits are now a part of life. Oh, and nice to have you along, California.

May 17, 2008|Elizabeth Mehren | Special to The Times

BOSTON — For some, it is as simple as access to the vocabulary of marriage. "My wife" translates so much more readily to the general populace than "my partner," said Marcia Hams, who traded vows with Susan Shepherd days after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage on May 17, 2004.

Other same-sex couples say marriage has produced more practical benefits. Gay and lesbian spouses can authorize emergency medical treatment for each other that once was off-limits because they were not husbands or wives. They can inherit property without mountains of paperwork explaining their relationship -- documents that often still were subject to challenge by biological relatives. And, as legally recognized families, they have access to cheaper health insurance.

"It's a huge savings for us, about $4,000 a year," Gary Chalmers said. After he and Rich Linnell married four years ago -- the very day that such unions became legal in Massachusetts -- they were able to scrap Linnell's $340-a-month individual policy and join a family plan. The couple have diverted the savings to a college fund for their 16-year-old daughter, Paige, who wore her first pair of high heels to her fathers' candlelight church wedding.

As California prepares to permit gay and lesbian marriage following Thursday's ruling by the state Supreme Court, Massachusetts views itself as a largely positive case study. In fact, at least one outspoken adversary in the Massachusetts Legislature has completely changed his views.

"I was a huge opponent," said Rep. Paul Kujawski, a Democrat who voted repeatedly in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. After three years of conversations with gay and lesbian families and individuals, Kujawski said, he has become a supporter: "I listened to story after story, and I found out they only want what everyone else wants -- the opportunity to live in happiness and dignity."

Opposition persists among groups that champion the sanctity of traditional marriage between a man and a woman. But for the most part in Massachusetts, lesbian and gay marriage has become so everyday that when kindergartner Chloe Page saw her teacher sporting a new wedding band, she asked if he had married a boy or a girl.

Chloe's mother, Boston-area events planner Liz Page, said Friday that the California decision meant Massachusetts could finally relinquish its status as the sole state to allow gay and lesbian marriage. "This is so important," Page said. "We have been waiting for the other dominoes to start to fall."

But Kris Mineau, president of the nonprofit Massachusetts Family Institute, said Friday that the California court decision represented another assault on a treasured institution. "What has happened here in Massachusetts is that marriage has been denigrated. It has been cheapened," Mineau said. "The California ruling has just exacerbated the notion that marriage is no longer held in high esteem."

According to recent state data, more than 10,000 gay and lesbian couples have married in the four years since the Supreme Judicial Court redefined marriage in Massachusetts to mean "the voluntary union of two persons as spouses," regardless of gender.

Fears that Massachusetts would become a same-sex marriage mecca for the rest of the country were quelled when then-Gov. Mitt Romney -- a Republican and a foe of gay and lesbian marriage -- unearthed a 1913 statute barring marriage in the commonwealth if a couple's home state did not recognize the union.

City and town clerks at that point were barred from issuing licenses to same-sex couples from outside Massachusetts, and there are no firm figures on how many such marriages have taken place.

Same-sex divorces also are hard to track because counties record those actions only by the last names of the parties involved. Carisa Cunningham, spokeswoman for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders here, said gay and lesbian divorces in Massachusetts probably numbered "in the several dozens."

(GLAD represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that prompted the Massachusetts court decision permitting same-sex marriage, and it also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in conjunction with Thursday's California decision.)

In a way, "Massachusetts has been like the reality TV show for gay marriage," said Karen Kahn, co-author of "Courting Equality," a book examining same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

"When we were the only state, we were the ones who were 'out there.' We were the target for every kind of criticism, all the threats that this would destroy marriage, families and civilization."

Instead, Kahn said, "what we have had is four years of marriage equality. Nothing terrible has happened in our state. The Red Sox have won the World Series twice since the law changed. There continue to be little pockets of opposition, but almost none of it is not religious-based. Overall, we are doing just fine here in Massachusetts."

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