An equality postcard from the Commonwealth

David Wilson and Rob Compton on the inevitability of civil marriage for all

By D'Anne Witkowski

It's been over a year since equal marriage rights for same-sex couples were affirmed in Massachusetts. On Nov. 18, 2003 same-sex couples across the country rejoiced as the state Supreme Court issued its historic 4-3 opinion that gay and lesbian couples could not be excluded from civil marriage.

Anti-gay forces, however, did not rejoice. Instead they galvanized an opposition that resulted in anti-marriage amendments on the Nov. 2 ballot in 11 states.

As gays and lesbians watched the election results come in, seeing those hateful amendments pass in every state was enough to make the joy of one year earlier seem all but impossible.

Two days after the election Between The Lines spoke with Rob Compton and David Wilson, one of the original seven couples in the Massachusetts marriage case filed in April of 2001. They were, in fact, the first of the seven couples to legally marry after the decision, making them the first same-sex couple legally married in the United States.

Compton, who is originally from Michigan, and Wilson have been together for eight years. They met through a group called Gay Fathers of Greater Boston.

They were both disappointed in the outcome of the election, even joking about moving to Canada, but ultimately they were more surprised by the outcome of the Presidential race, not by the 11 ballot initiatives.

"In those states, ten already had DOMA laws and in ten of the states they haven't done much of anything really ahead of time to help prepare people," said Compton. The exception was Oregon where marriage for gays and lesbians was allowed in certain counties. "As people talked about it in Oregon more and more people came to understand why it was so important to gay and lesbian families and in that state where that dialog has happened that was the closest."

The other ten states, Compton pointed out, had not seen a direct push for marriage equality. Their ballot initiatives were a part of a coordinated effort to get evangelicals out to the polls. The dialogs that had been such an important part of the success in Massachusetts had yet to happen, putting opponents of the measures at a disadvantage.

The country as a whole, Compton pointed out, is not as anti-gay as the media has portrayed since the election. Though the ballot initiatives passed, the same exit polls that showed "moral values" to be the most important issue to voters also found a majority of voters favored equal protections for gay and lesbian families either through marriage (27 percent) or civil unions (35 percent). These numbers are a result of a growing dialog about equal rights as well as a growing visibility of gay and lesbian families.

"If you just drop a ballot initiative on the majority population ... it's very difficult without any education to move that 90 percent to a favorable number," said Wilson. "As an African American in this country, if we go back to when the first ban was struck down in California on interracial marriage, 90 percent of the population was against that. And there needed to be a tremendous educational effort and it took almost 20 years for it to finally get to the Supreme Court. ... So I just see this as a beginning point. And certainly Massachusetts has put a stake in the ground, but I think the rest of the country needs the same kind of education that's happened here in Massachusetts."

"In Massachusetts we spent three years framing the question," said Compton. "The issue was not marriage. The issue had to do with liberty, the issue had to do with equal protection under the law, and the issue had to do with whether or not the state could legally create a second class status for citizens."

"Massachusetts did not start with civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples," said Wilson. "We started in the mid 80s with gay rights legislation which protected us in housing and employment. ... And then we moved to hate crime legislation, ... then we moved to foster care where gays and lesbians were allowed to take department of social services children who were basically homeless and raise them. Then we moved to adoption, both single parent adoption and second parent adoption. And then we moved to safe-schools legislation. So if you list all of the work that's gone on from the mid-80s to civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples, we have a 15 year history of building families that end up ... without a legal relationship between the parents. So it was over that period of time that it became really clear that Massachusetts had worked very hard, both Republicans and Democrats, to protect gay and lesbian individuals and then families. And then at the end, when we presented this case to the SJC and the SJC asked for the state to prove otherwise and it was not obviously possible at that point because we'd created everything we needed. We just needed a legal relationship between the two parents."

"And in fact," added Compton, "one of the justices of the SJC asked the state, 'You allow and in fact encourage gay and lesbian couples to adopt children because they're much better in loving, nurturing homes than in some institution, is that right?' and the state said yes. 'So you want these families to be created because it benefits the children and also benefits the state because now the children are off the burden of the state, why is it you don't want these families then to have the same benefits and protections that all other families are afforded by the state?' And they couldn't answer that."

And the more people hear stories of how real families are harmed and discriminated against by being denied legal recognition, the harder it is to justify that denial. "We ... need to talk about families and we need to talk about what happens to our kids. Those are all the educational efforts that I feel need to happen going forward, [that] did not happen for this election."

One of the examples cited throughout the Massachusetts marriage case was the experience of the lead plaintiff couple, Hillary and Julie Goodridge, when Julie gave birth to their baby. "There were some complications," said Wilson, "and Hillary, who was the non-biological parent, was barred access to both her partner and the child the day of delivery because she had no legal right to either. She had to wait for the shift to change, go home and change her clothes and come back in as a sister in order to have access to her newborn child and her partner."

"It was amazing, the response that Massachusetts residents across our state had to that one example," Wilson added. "Those human stories make it very difficult for the anti-gay folks to persuade the population."

Before meeting Compton, Wilson had a harrowing experience of his own involving his previous long-term partner.

"My late partner actually died raking leaves in our yard," said Wilson. When he arrived home his partner was in the driveway surrounded by EMT and police who would not allow Wilson access. "I was removed from the driveway, allowed to go into our home that we had been in almost 10 years but with no information and ... no information when I got to the hospital." At the hospital they wouldn't even tell him his partner had passed away.

"So even though I didn't know I would be here at this point in time," said Wilson, "on that day in November of 1994 I realized if I ever have an opportunity to fall in love again, I'm going to work as hard as I can to have a legal right to my partner."

He met Compton three years later. "Obviously this is one of the first things that I talked to Rob about," he said.

"Our role, and the role of the seven couples, [involved in the marriage case], was to put a human face on the issue which helps people understand ... just the common things we have to face in everyday life whether it's going to the emergency room or trying to raise our children," said Compton.

"I've been in the emergency room seven times in the last five years," said Compton. Before they were legally married, Wilson had difficulties having access to his partner in the hospital and wasn't able to make decisions for him.

"In some cases the hospital actually made decisions and I was barred from being part of those," said Wilson.

Without a legally recognized relationship, there is no guarantee to access in emergency situations. "A lot of gay and lesbian couples mistakenly believe, 'Well I can get legal documents like health care proxies and things like that,'" said Compton. "We had health care proxies, but when you show up at two or three o'clock in the morning ... suddenly you're in there and David's trying to show that he does have the legal right, they have to find a supervisor because they don't know what's going on, and all that takes time. In the meantime I'm back in the emergency room trying to cope with the pain and people are asking me all these questions."

Not only that, said Compton, but carrying all of your paperwork at all times is unrealistic. "Nobody carries their marriage license, you simply say, 'We're married.' You don't need to produce anything. They respect it and they allow you to participate in the whole process."

"Obviously within the state of Massachusetts we are feeling much more safe and secure with our marriage license," said Wilson. "People know that civil marriage is legal for gay and lesbian couples, so we do feel a sense of security but we also try to always have our marriage license with us wherever we go."

"But just from the dialog that's happened over the three years in the case, we're being treated with the same respect as other couples not just in Massachusetts but throughout New England," said Compton. "A month ago I ended up in the emergency room down in Rhode Island and I had to call David ... and when he got down there he simply said that he was my husband. They didn't ask for any documentation. ... They respected the fact that we were married and he had immediate access."

"I told them who I was and my relationship to Rob and ... I was escorted right in and filled out all the papers for Rob to be discharged and it was a great experience," said Wilson. "It was one of our first and probably one of our best experiences since we got married."

"So I think for all of us, certainly the seven couples all have their own very personal stories, but the thousands of gay and lesbian couples across the state of Massachusetts all went home during the three years and talked with their families about their own personal stories and that made a huge difference in the sense of our rights," Wilson said.

"That's why it went from 35 percent of the population to over 51 percent of the population supporting gay marriage," said Compton, "not because of the seven couples, but because thousands and thousands of gays and lesbians were sitting at the dinner tables with their families or at work with their coworkers and explained to them why it was important to them. That's what swayed the public and made it politically possible."

"Going forward," said Wilson, "I think it's the couples across all of these states, not only with ballot measures but just states in general where couples are going to go to their families, go to their work places, go to their friends, and tell their own personal stories and I think that's how we're going to move from where we are today to where we want to be which is civil marriage for all."

"I think one other issue that people need to keep in mind and it's a very important one, those in the GLBT community who really have been following this closely and look at all the particulars of this issue, we're very optimistic and the anti-gay forces are scared to death and the reason they're scared to death is that polling of each generation shows that each succeeding generation behind us is more and more in favor of gay marriage," said Compton. "The tide is on our side. We are going to win this and they know that and that's why they're trying to pass these constitutional amendments to make it harder for future generations to change it, but the fact is the polls show that the overwhelming majority behind us get it and it's not an issue for them and it will change. We just need to be patient and keep working, but it will happen."

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