First, a brief history lesson: Massachusetts was the second of the original 13 colonies to abolish slavery: Vermont took the lead in 1777; Massachusetts followed six years later. There was no popular vote. There was no legislative action. Slavery was abolished by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), which 211 years later ruled that according to the Massachusetts Constitution — which is 11 years older than the US Constitution — it is unlawful to deny people the right to marry someone of the same sex.
As we all know, it was not until after the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that slavery was abolished nationwide by the 13th Amendment, passed in 1865. When all is said and done, Massachusetts was 82 years ahead of the curve when it came to eradicating the abomination of slavery.
Once again, thanks to the SJC, Massachusetts is ahead of the curve: this time in sanctioning gay marriage. However, Vermont does get a competitive nod for being the first to adopt admirable — but still less comprehensive — civil unions.
This is something members of the Massachusetts House and Senate should keep in mind when they meet next month at a Constitutional Convention to consider whether to allow a statewide vote that could, in effect, nullify the SJC’s decision to grant couples of the same sex who wish to marry the same rights enjoyed by those of opposite sexes.
This box-score approach to recounting history has its limitations, of course. Ending slavery and promoting racial justice prove to be two very different things. But before the notion of ending slavery could become a fact, it had to be an idea. And before the notion that people of all races should be treated equally under the law could become a fact, it, too, had to become an idea. Just as allowing women the right to vote and granting them equal pay for equal work had to progress from a general notion to a concrete and actionable idea. People who are still uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex couples who wish to bind their lives together — legally as well as romantically — should understand that they are swimming against the tide, as hard as that may be to accept.
Things change. Circumstances change. Life changes. And no matter how unsettling it may be, flux is a given: nothing stands still — at least for long. Girls and young women at one point had little say in the question of whom they would marry. Women at one point were denied all but the most restrictive rights to property. People of differing races at one point were forbidden to marry one another. At one point, neither men nor women were allowed to divorce — except under the narrowest circumstances. There was a time when only straight, married couples could adopt.
There was a time when the idea of challenging these notions would have been considered kooky, even stark raving mad. But today — though some may still be uncomfortable with altering such strictures — the changes are generally recognized by all. Today, for example, adoption by gay Americans is legal in all but a handful of states.