As of yesterday, Governor John Baldacci signed Bill LB 1020, making gay marriage legal in the state of Maine. He signed it within an hour of receiving it from the State Senate, which received it from the State House the week before. The pace of change here has been dizzying. I couldn't be more pleased by all this, though there is a provision for opponents to gather signatures for a "people's veto," which would take the issue to referendum and hence statewide vote. The oppponents vow to do this on the argument that civil rights shouldn't be extended to everybody, or at least not marriage.
I take no personal credit for this. I credit the many Mainers who made this possible, singling out the extraordinary work of the lgbt civil rights group EqualityMaine led by the extraordinary Betsy Smith. I have been a member of EQMaine since I moved here, having joined within my first two weeks, before I even had a library card. (That should tell you something.)
The one part of the process I was able to participate in was the public hearing that took place only a few weeks ago in the Augusta Civic Center. It was originally scheduled in the local Cony High School in Augusta, but sensing the huge turnout that would show up for such a contentious issue, the Judiciary Committee of the Legislature wisely moved to the bigger digs down the road. Smart move; about 3000 people showed up (4000 by some estimates) over the course of the day, and I was able to attend the last hour and a half, by which time the Judiciary Committee must have been exhausted, having listened to citizen testimony for 13 hours straight.
I would've liked to have been able to hear the first hour, when the bill was introduced and, I suspect, the most telling testimony from the power players was put forward. In particular, I would've liked to have heard the testimony of the Bishop of (Catholic) Diocese of Portland, which officially opposed the bill -- which is not to say that Catholics uniformly did. I will give the Bishop credit that he did not take the hard and mean-spirited line of the Vatican, that gay marriage will essentially destroy civilization as we know it. Indeed, the Dicoese supports civill unions but not marriage, arguing that marriage is foundational to the raising of children. This seems to ignore the fact that gays and lesbians have and raise children themselves, but I am never astonished any more by the illogical arguments of opponents to gay marriage. Most of the opposition comes down to one basic argument: "I just don't like it," or "I'm not comfortable with this," as if personal bias or comfort should be the cornerstone of the legal system, that we should deny rights to people to make other people comfortable. THsi kind of self-centeredness annoys the hell out of me. My own Bishop of the (Epsicopal) Diocese of Maine supported the bill in a strongly worded statement, and my own rector, himself a gay man in a committed relationship, joined thirty other clergy from various denominations to testify in support of the bill.
I was surprised at the tail end of the day at the passion people were still pouring into their testimonies. More specifically, I was surprised at the opposition's poor showing in testifying. I don't agree with their arguments at all, but I do concede that it is possible to present a view opposing gay marriage with a modicum of sense and reasonable tone. They didn't deliver at all. Several testimonies were utterly incoherent, rambling affairs that with logical leaps that made my freshman composition papers look like transcripts of the debates at the Oxford Club. Among the stupider arguments put forth was that passing this bill would raise health care costs because gays die earleir than straights, I assume because of AIDS. What the hell? One woman broke down, nearly sob-screaming that if this bill passed, how would she ever talk about marriage with her darling, precious grandchildren? Her speech won the "This Bill Is All About Me, After All" Award for Total Self-Centeredness. And one man who testified, I was informed by one of my students who went to school with his children, was a notorious alcohol abuser, wife beater, and child neglecter, though the Judiciary Committee couldn't know that. His testimony spoke volumes anyway -- rambling, pointless, and ugly.
The supporters, by and large, were articulate and smart. I don't just say that because I supported this bill; it happened to be true. Mostly, people just told their stories, which was the best testimony possible. Couples spoke eloqently about having been together 30 years, unable to get basic health benefits, or worse, having partners die on them because they couldn't get health benefits. Children of gay parents testified and said that they were proof that gay and lesbian parents provide loving homes. One Catholic woman who declared that her Bishop and priest told her from the pulpit to contact her legislators, "So here I am. And let me go on record," she continued forcefully, "to say that not all Catholics oppose this, as the Diocese might have you believe." She got a standing ovation.
An editorial in yesterday's local paper came from the opposition, saying that if they had trotted children up there to say that they needed a mother and a father, this strategy would be branded as unfair and manipulative. Of course it would, for good reason. A seven-year-old who says this would simply be parroting his parents' own bigotry; how could he possibly know what it's like to have same-sex parents? But when a seven-year-old supporter gets up and testifies that his moms need the benefit of marriage and that they're great parents, he's speaking from the very real experience about having two mothers. Saying this may be manipulative, sure, but it's also the truth. And when the truth speaks to power, right-minded people listen.
The most poignant testimony came from one woman who opposed the bill. She was clearly troubled by everything she had heard, and she said, almost to the point of tears, "The stories I've heard today from supporters of this bill -- well, they just tear my heart out. We've got to do something to make the system more equal and fair. But, please -- not marriage." Obviously, she had been forced into a position that the opposition never wants to find itself in and does everything to avoid: looking and gay and lesbian people as people as opposed to the monsters that they must be so that they can be hated more effectively. And if the hearing did anything, I hope that it did that. It was easy to find the supporters; in a brilliant stroke, EQMaine encouraged everybody who supported the bill to wear red as a sign of solidarity. The Civic Center was a sea of red, and the opponents couldn't avoid red if they tried. If any good comes out of thism debate, it might be this: that we are all forced to take a good look at each other, hear each other's stories respectfully, and discover that have more common ground than we might have thought. I don't have great hopes for the more right-wing hatemongers who depend on creating monstrous enemies to fulfill their own self-righteousness. But I do hope that a great number of the opponents were of the same frame of mind as that young woman. She may not support gay marriage, but she is now clearly struggling with it, and that's a good thing.