Today marks 15 years since Massachusetts became the country’s first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Read my conversation below with Heidi and Gina Nortonsmith, one of the seven couples who sued the state back in 2001, and learn what it took to make that happen, and the future of the LGBT movement…
Katie Couric: In 2001, you were one of seven same-sex couples who sued the state of Massachusetts for the right to marry…how did you become part of this case?
Gina Nortonsmith: Heidi was pregnant and we were working with our lawyer to draw up all the legal protections that were available to us to protect our growing family, and we discovered that the law considered us to be “legal strangers” to each other. We could draw up wills and Powers of Attorney, but there was nothing in the law that said that the state had to respect our relationship, our family, our belongings, or our intentions, if anything bad happened to one of us. If Heidi had encountered a medical complication during childbirth, or at any time when our kids were young, they would have had no legal relationship to Gina, and could have been taken away from her. Even now, decades later, it’s gut-wrenching even to think about…
Because we had been working on this with our lawyer, she helped put us in touch with the legal team at GLAD Legal Advocates and Defenders when she heard they wanted to talk to couples like us. After meeting with their legal team, it was clear that we wanted to be involved in the case if we could be helpful. We both have tremendously loving and supportive families, and had secure jobs with supportive management, so we figured, “if not us, who?”
Reflect back to the moment when it was clear that marriage would be legalized in Massachusetts…what emotions did you feel?
Well, first and foremost we felt elated by the win and the prospect of being married. We were overjoyed and relieved that we could continue our parenting with the protections that marriage could bring to our family. And we felt proud to have been part of an effort that could help bring more joy, love, and security to so many others across the state over time.
That said, our feelings were complicated by the fact that politicians immediately tried to deny that the court ruling meant what it did, and instead tried to interpret the court ruling as establishing civil unions. So those six months between the court decision and the date it went into effect were very fraught because politicians and religious organizations tried to stop the ruling from taking effect. It made for a bittersweet time in celebrating the victory and planning for our wedding and the weddings of many other beloved friends.
Heidi, you’ve said that it did “feel differently” when you and Gina could say that you were married – how so? What was the difference?
We never expected to be able to say we were married and just have people understand all the things that tells you about who we are. It’s a tremendous marker for who we are to each other and how we intend to be for each other over our lives. To use any other term that was available to us at the time – dating, partners, or the awkward “civil union” (“civilly united”??) – automatically conveyed something inaccurate and lacking. It was so liberating to be able to claim this word for ourselves and our relationship. We both feel this way.
Same sex marriage has faced many challenges over the years…do you worry that at some point it could be reversed?
I’m an optimist. I’ve seen so much growth and progress and acceptance for this movement over the past two decades. As our society has embraced the dignity of LGBTQIA individuals and families, our collective hearts have grown and our love has multiplied. That genie isn’t going back in the bottle, in my opinion.
Like any right, it depends on the people who defend it. The people on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court at the time of the decision were defending the ideal of equality for all citizens. You hope that the people with the power to make decisions will want to protect the rights of everyone. Whenever we vote, we give people the power to make decisions about our lives. And when we stop voting and acting as if those things are important, we’ve given power to the wrong people, haven’t we?
While support for same-sex marriage continues to grow, do you worry that there’s a sense of complacency about the very real discrimination that the LBGQT community still faces?
It feels like there are a lot of human rights that are under siege in our society right now, and at the same time, people seem more insular in their self-interests. As a nation we’re divided, and encouraged to divide ourselves, instead of seeing past differences to our commonalities and a shared human interest. So yes, we worry about people being complacent about LGBTQIA discrimination, as well as many other kinds of discrimination, injustice, and suffering.
At a time when the basic mechanics of voting and participating in American democracy – and even citizenship itself – are being threatened, how can any group of people not worry that their rights are in danger?
When you look forward, what work still needs to be done? What do you see as the next milestone for gay rights?
While we played a role in moving the equal marriage issue forward 15 years ago, we’re really not on the front lines of setting or advancing gay rights at this point, so it’s not for us to say what those next milestones will be. Certainly LGBTQIA folks still get fired, assaulted, and denied health care, and those risks need to be overcome. As has been said many times about human rights, “none of us is free until all of us are free,” and we’re aware that queer folks of color, those who are disabled, and gender non-conforming people face extra challenges and dangers. Our community continues to work to be treated with dignity, and that need didn’t disappear with the advent of equal marriage.
What has being married for all these years meant for both of you?
There are two aspects to this answer. The first is that we’ve been happily legally-married for 15 years (together for 29), that our kids have grown up within the safety and love of that union, and that we’ve known the joy of celebrating equal marriages for friends, families, and others all over the country. People have told us that their children have a different life path because marriage is legal, and we’ve witnessed families that earlier might have struggled or fallen to pieces in shame instead embrace their gay children as they come out, because they have a roadmap to even imagine a future with the choice of having loving marriages and becoming parents.
And on another level, it goes way beyond marriage. For 15 years we’ve been free to carry out other aspects of our lives with the person who loves and supports us openly at our side. That’s such a huge thing, to go to work at a demanding job and participate in community life with the ability to bring one’s whole self – including spouse and family – in full view. It multiplies the contributions we can make in the world, and the joy and connectedness we feel in our day-to-day lives.