This is the year, or at least it should be. 2004 had plenty of surprises. The Red Sox won the World Series after a sloppy mid-season. George W. Bush broke the Washington Redskins rule and got a second term in office. So why shouldn’t 2005 be the year that a small, East Coast state fond of Republican governors and hawkish Democratic senators makes American history and, working through the legislature, gives full equal marriage rights to the almost 8,000 gay and lesbian couples who live, work and pay taxes there?
New Haven’s own Rev. Michael Ray knows that this could be the year. The Episcopal Church does not allow its clergy to perform marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples, so when Ray’s parishioners asked him to treat all couples equally last November, Rev. Ray decided that he would no longer marry any couples — that he would refuse to use the power vested in him by his church and his state if it meant practicing discrimination. He hopes Connecticut will recognize, as he did, how deeply unfair it is to continue to deny equal benefits and protections to any couples, regardless of their sexual orientation. “If the church takes the lead,” he explained to the New York Times on Friday, “it will help the civil issue.”
Gov. Jodi Rell seems to know that this could be the year, though she is less happy about it. The governor has adopted the precarious position of many Democrats and moderate Republicans: She supports equal rights for gay and lesbian couples, but when it comes to granting them access to marriage, the only legal status which confers the same set of protections and benefits available to straight couples, well, “I’m an old-fashioned person when it comes to that.”
The real holdouts, represented by the Family Institute of Connecticut and other, similar bastions of intolerance will probably collectively bury their heads in the sand before admitting that this could be the year. But a mounting wealth of polling data showing that Connecticut voters support both civil unions and recognition of marriages performed for gay couples in Massachusetts suggest that these voters increasingly see such advocates of bigotry as the extremists that they are.
These shifts in attitude will probably be accompanied by legislative action this year. Though the first push among legislators will likely be for a compromise on a civil unions bill, there is a chance that courageous senators and representatives will dare to take up the debate over full equality. If they succeed in turning what was once an impossible dream — equal marriage rights for Connecticut’s gay and lesbian couples — into a reality, the importance of that achievement cannot be understated.
Vermont’s civil unions, the legal status created to provide gay and lesbian couples access to the state-level responsibilities and protections granted to their straight peers, were prompted by a ruling of that state’s supreme court. Massachusetts, the first state to recognize gay and lesbian couples as full and equal citizens, did so because of a similar court ruling. As a result, conservative groups have been able to claim that such extensions of equal rights are imposed on unwilling citizens by activist judges, and that state-level constitutional amendments that codify discrimination against gay and lesbian couples represent the true will of the people.
If a legislature, acting on its own, passed equal marriage legislation in Connecticut, the right would lose the procedural arguments it makes in lieu of defending the bigotry that is at the basis of their opposition.
Though conservatives would inevitably argue that Connecticut is simply part of the solid-blue, liberal, morally degenerate Northeast, the fact would still remain that the majority in a democratically elected body had made equality the law of the state. And though Connecticut may have gone blue in the last election, the truth is that the state is hardly a Northeast mecca of liberalism. Disgraced former Republican Gov. John Rowland was brought down more by his own venality than the accusations of his Democratic challengers, and approval numbers for his successor, Gov. Rell, remain extremely high. Though both of Connecticut’s senators are Democrats, Joe Lieberman, at least, can sometimes seem more at home on the other side of the aisle, including on a number of gay rights issues. Connecticut is, in fact, not so different from many other parts of the country.
But this could be a year that this very small state makes a very significant difference in standing up for equality. If Connecticut’s legislators have the courage to be real leaders, to make the difficult decisions made by Michael Ray and other people of conscience, they could shift the debate on equal marriage rights back to where it belongs: to the question of who is right and who is bigoted.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a junior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.