For four years, and 10,000 same-sex nuptials, Massachusetts has had a monopoly on gay marriage in the United States. The virus, as its opponents might see it, had been effectively contained: the Bay State was issuing licenses only to its own resident homosexuals, and almost no other states recognized their marital status outside the Massachusetts borders.
That changed in a flash at 10 o’clock Pacific Daylight Time this past Thursday morning, when the top court in the biggest and most important state in the country also gave the green light to same-sex marriages. Beginning June 14, 30 days after the ruling, California will issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Reports on the ruling lacked the furor and intensity that surrounded the onset of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, or even the first civil unions in Vermont, in 2000. That seems understandable: the second to do something is simply not as newsworthy as the first.
But this is an exception to that rule. Massachusetts was first, but California matters.
It matters partly because of its size, and its central place in American culture. (Within days, for example, most Americans knew that both Ellen DeGeneres and George “Mr. Sulu” Takei planned to wed same-sex spouses in California, which is two more gay vow-takers than they could name after four years of legal same-sex marriages in Massachusetts.)
It matters because it will immediately affect statewide politics, which in California automatically sways national politics. It matters because, unlike Massachusetts, where voters have never weighed in on the issue, Californians will do so before the end of the year, in a ballot initiative that seeks to amend the constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage — at the same time that the state, and the country, chooses the next president.
And it matters because this ruling, unlike the one in Massachusetts, goes far beyond redressing unequal marriage laws, and implicitly accuses opponents of gay rights generally, and gay marriage specifically, of outright, unacceptable, unconstitutional discrimination. And by doing so, it may usher in a new era of equality and gay rights.
Two of those gay-marriage opponents, unfortunately, are Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. If they recognized the watershed importance of this past week’s ruling, they chose to remain on the side of discrimination. Given their own status as personal symbols of racial and gender accomplishment, it’s a shame they can’t or won’t embrace equality at the last remaining civil-rights frontier.
Massachusetts will forever be first — a point of obvious pain to San Francisco residents who initiated desperate maneuvers to beat Boston to the punch after the Bay State’s Supreme Judicial Court made its historic decision in November 2003. Before that ruling took effect the following May, San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, in the face of a clear prohibition, issued some 4000 wedding licenses to same-sex couples, all later invalidated.
That number, however, hints at the power in California’s size: 8000 people lined up, in the state’s fourth-largest city (after Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose), for an illegal marriage license almost certain to be worthless.
When it comes to new public policy, most states serve as America’s test kitchens. California’s policy changes, though, become juggernauts that often have inevitable effects on the rest of the country.
That is certainly the case with same-sex marriage. California contains 10 percent of the nation’s people, and, thanks to its gay-friendly cities and industries, an even bigger percentage of its gays and lesbians. Roughly one of every seven American same-sex couples lives in California, according to the US Census — about twice as many as in New York, which ranks second, and five times the number here in Massachusetts.
In addition, California will allow nonresidents to marry (unlike Massachusetts, still stuck with a statute against marriages that would not be recognized in the couple’s home state), which means that couples nationwide will bring back legal licenses to challenge their home states’ current stances.
But even just considering the nearly 100,000 same-sex couples cohabitating in California, according to the Census — almost certainly a gross undercount — the sheer number of people affected will force new levels of institutional acceptance. Massachusetts’s gay marriages were a curiosity; California’s will be a demographic. And a market segment. (Rainbowweddingnetwork.com has already scheduled three gay-wedding expos in California this summer.) Large corporations will have to adopt policies and paperwork recognizing same-sex spouses, not only for their employees but, where applicable, for their customers. (Expect sales and customer-service representatives to start asking your spouse’s gender as they input your information into their databases.)
California’s leap forward will undoubtedly also have ripple effects in the short term — as states such as Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine consider further steps toward marriage equality — and in the long term, as states eventually consider repeal of their zealous constitutional amendments. (A movement is already underway in Michigan, where an overly broad “Defense of Marriage Amendment” is preventing the state from offering a range of rights to gay partners.) The call for reversals could be sped up if Hollywood celebrities begin boycotting states that don’t recognize their spouses’ legal status.