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Book Review: Courting Equality

Courting Equality: A Documentary History of America’s First Legal Same-Sex Marriages is a glossy, large-format work, but to call it a coffee-table book is to do it an injustice. The text by Patricia A. Gozemba and Karen Kahn, and the photographs by Marilyn Humphries, tell the mesmerizing story of the fight for marriage equality in Massachusetts. The book is at once a celebration, a history, and a reminder that we are all still writing a final chapter.

Whether you live in Massachusetts or elsewhere, you will find much in the volume to inform and uplift. The book opens, after an introductory overview, on the day of the Supreme Judicial Court’s Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health decision that legalized same-sex marriage. The authors take us through the initial reactions of Mary Bonauto, the lead attorney on the case, and the seven plaintiff couples as they hasten to the press conference.

More below the fold…The next chapter brings us back to the early days of the LGBT civil-rights movement in Massachusetts, where the state helped set a positive trend for the nation. We learn of Massachusetts’ pioneering role as one of the first states (after Wisconsin) to pass a bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. We hear of the appearance of a candidate for the state legislature in the 1972 Gay Pride march, only three years after the Stonewall riots in New York. The candidate, Barney Frank, went on to become a member of the U.S. Congress, and last week presided over the historic House vote in favor of an LGBT-inclusive bill to prevent hate crimes.

We also read of early steps towards support, visibility, and recognition of LGBT parents, from the 1979 Lesbian and Gay Parents Project in Cambridge, MA to the 1993 recognition of the state’s first second-parent adoption. A little more national context might have been nice here. Several states and other jurisdictions were already granting second-parent adoptions in the mid-1980s, but the authors do not tell us what impact, if any, these rulings had on Massachusetts’ decision to grant them.

This is not intended to be a complete history of the fight for same-sex marriage, however. It is in fact greatly educational to read a history that eschews overviews and details the ups and downs within a particular state. The tale reads in part like a suspense novel, full of political machinations. At one point after the decision, when the right was pushing for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage:

The marriage equality lobbyists realized that the key to protecting the constitution lay with the pro-DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] conservatives who did not want to vote for civil unions. If the conservatives lined up with the marriage equality legislators against a newly proposed separate but equal compromise, the amendment might be defeated. But first, marriage equality legislators would have to be willing to cast strategic votes in favor of the compromise to ensure that it-and not a strict DOMA without a civil-unions guarantee-moved forward to a final vote.

The writers of The West Wing couldn’t have done it better. Later, we find out it was only 36 hours before the state would begin accepting marriage-license applications from same-sex couples that Mary Bonauto learned the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected an appeal to use the federal DOMA legislation to stop the licensing.

Gozemba and Kahn also remind us of the colorful side of political maneuvering, such as the press conference by former professional wrestler and Minnesota ex-governor Jesse Ventura and former boxing champion Joe DeNucci “to show that ‘real men’ favored marriage equality.” They tell us of such tactics as the “sibling project,” launched by the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus to get gay siblings and children of legislators to convince them to vote against the amendment.

This is more than a story of politicians and celebrities, however. Throughout the work, we hear the voices of regular LGBT citizens and their allies. The last chapter is a celebration of the first same-sex wedding ceremonies. The authors place us in line with the first couples waiting to wed on May 17, 2004, and convey the giddy atmosphere that prevailed. They tell us the wedding stories of the seven Goodridge plaintiffs and many others besides.

Even if you do not read a word of the text, the photographs alone make this a volume worth keeping. Humphries, who has captured images of the LGBT-rights movement over the past 25 years, shows us legislators and lawyers at work, activists on the march, couples in love, and families celebrating. It is photojournalism at its finest.

The volume takes us almost to the present, when the constitutional convention in January 2007 gave initial approval to placing a DOMA amendment on the ballot. The legislature now has to pass the amendment again before it can go to the voters in 2008. Marriage rights in Massachusetts-the shining beacon of the nation in this regard-still hang by a thread. Reading Courting Equality, however, will give you hope. Buy it for yourself, your family, and friends, and ask your local library to stock it. These are words and pictures that need to be shared.

(Crossposted with slight variation at Mombian.)

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