By Khaled Al Senan, News Correspondent
At the “Gay Rights After Gay Marriage” educational series on Nov. 13, the Presidential Council on Inclusion and Diversity and Distinguished Professor of Political Science Michael Dukakis promoted dialogue and respect for ethnic, religious and sexual diversity. The educational series examined the sociopolitical implications of same-sex marriage on the country, focusing in particular on Massachusetts’ case and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act last June.
“Sixty years ago, Boston was a racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic city – look how far we’ve come,” said Dukakis, opening the sixth edition of “Conflict, Civility, Respect, Peace: Northeastern Reflects.”
On Nov. 18, 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, in a landmark decision made by the state’s supreme judicial court. Goodridge v. Depart-ment of Public Health, a case in which seven same-sex couples sued the Massachusetts Department of Health for denying them marriage licenses, was settled in a 4-3 ruling in favor of the couples. Since that verdict, the nation has witnessed a new period in the LGBT rights movement, with over a dozen states following in Massachusetts’ footsteps.
“Article 1 of the state constitution was clear: all men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights. Prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying violated those rights,” said Justice Rod-erick Ire-land, who sided with the plaintiffs when he was an associate justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
The former justice, who is now an adjunct professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern, spoke of the ferocious backlash the decision evoked on both a local and national scale. Opponents of same-sex marriage sent the justices death threats. The church Ireland regularly attends received requests to excommunicate him.
“Criticism is democracy in action,” Justice Ireland continued. “People have the right to their own opinions and as judges, we cannot take it personally.”
The event’s panel also featured the director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders Mary Bonauto, another prominent figure in the Goodridge v. Depart-ment of Public Health case. The nonprofit organization filed the 2003 lawsuit on behalf the gay couples. At the panel discussion, Bonauto reflected upon cases that challenged anti-interracial marriage laws in the late 1960’s, and how they fueled the uprising of the gay rights movement.
“LGBT Americans saw themselves as minorities, too,” Bonauto said. “They began to say, if African Americans fought to enhance their civil liberties, why can’t they?”
The judicial courts were much harsher to gay activists, though. Bonauto pointed out that in 1970, the US Supreme Court refused to accept cases that challenged anti-gay marriage laws.
“They dismissed it completely,” Bonauto said. “They believed the issue of denying gay couples the right to marry did not pose any constitutional debate.”
Although the forum celebrated the triumph of same-sex marriage laws throughout the past decade, panelist Suzanna Wal-ters, the director of Northeastern’s Women, Gender and Sex-u-ality Studies pro-gram, cautioned against allowing the issue of marriage to monopolize the discussion of gay rights. Walters argued that it has undermined the efforts to ensure that non-discrimination laws for the LGBT community are passed in every state.
“Of course marriage is a civil right, but what happens to a movement when it focuses on one issue? It marginalizes people within the movement who are affected by other issues,” Walters said.
Andrew Kaz, a middler computer science major, agreed that exposure to the issue of gay marriage in comparison with other vitally important LGBT issues is imbalanced. However, he said he believes it’s important to examine the statistics within the context of each particular state.
“In California, legislation targeting the protection of LGBT youth from violence and discrimination became law as early as 2000,” Kaz said. “Certainly there’s work to be done, but to a large extent, marriage equality was the seminal issue in California by 2008.”
Not all states, however, are ready to handle the issue quite as progressively.
“Back home in West Virginia, the context is very different,” Kaz said. “Marriage equality isn’t even close to the horizon for my home state, but LGBT politicians and activists already recognize this reality and are instead working towards addressing the many other concerns to create a safe environment for LGBT individuals.”
Another aspect of Walters’ critique was that the focus on same-sex marriage normalizes a certain lifestyle within the community which was invented by a patriarchal, heteronormative and oppressive institution.
“Marriage is an institution that brings people closer to traditional, conservative values and keeps them away from the progressive principles of the gay rights movement, such as sexual freedom and gender non-binaries,” Walters said.