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Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus - Annual Commencement Dinner
June 5, 2003 - Evan Wolfson

It is an honor to be back at Harvard before such a great group. I was disappointed to have to decline the invitation to speak at last year's Commencement Dinner -- though I think the organizers definitely traded up in securing President Larry Summers....

Fortunately, for both personal and movement reasons, I think the timing works out better that I speak with you here tonight.

The movement reasons -- Massachusetts' place in history at this time, poised as we are within reach of winning the freedom to marry -- I will come to in a moment.

On the personal side, this year marks the 20th since I graduated from Harvard Law; e-mail is already anticipating the reunion later this fall. And I just spent last weekend at -- gasp -- my 25th Class Reunion at a college I shouldn't name here. Suffice to say it begins with a "Y."

As I strolled the campus and schmoozed with friends and people from my past, I had a chance to reflect on the changes that can take place in twenty-five years. I experienced that funny way reunions have of letting you feel both how much you and others have aged, and, at the same time, how much you feel the same, how the bonds remain, how much endures. I thought about the power of an institution to enrich so many people's lives, the importance of participating in something and contributing for others who come after us. I again had the chance to think about and savor what really matters in life: family, friends, opportunities to learn and grow, laughter and silly shared experiences, and accomplishment, giving something back, making the world better.

On the wall of my office hangs a speech by Martin Luther King. King talks of how he'd like to be remembered on the day of his funeral, and exhorts:
If you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize -- that isn't important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards -- that's not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.

King's speech hangs on my wall because it defines for me what legacy I'd like to leave -- a life of love, a life of service, a life of engagement, a committed life. And I think of it now standing here with you because we have a critical challenge before us right now, right here. Each one of us here can play a part in making history now.

Fifty-five years ago, a four-justice majority of the California Supreme Court had the commitment to the constitutional mandate of equality for all and the institutional integrity as judges not to be deterred from their constitutional role even in the face of tremendous political pressure, including many of the same arguments being pressed in Massachusetts today. With its 1948 decision in Perez v. Lippold, that supreme court entered history as an example of a court's willingness to stand up for justice in the case before it, without fear or favor, unswayed by those who urged it to "connive at infractions" of constitutional guarantees and the human dignity of a vulnerable minority.

Each person seeking a license to marry the "wrong" kind of person, said the court, "finds himself barred by law from marrying the person of his choice and that person to him may be irreplaceable. Human beings are bereft of worth and dignity by a doctrine that would make them as interchangeable as trains."

Striking down discrimination in marriage in fulfillment of the constitutional guarantees of equality they had enunciated and were, in part, pioneering, the 4-3 majority rejected the dissent's assertion that in such matters, courts should defer to public opinion or even a long and sorry history of discrimination. Instead, by frankly acknowledging the harms in discrimination and the lack of compelling justification, and by refusing to falter or delay, the court fulfilled the mission of the judiciary, did justice, and immeasurably enriched the nation.

The decision in Perez, marking the beginning of the end of race discrimination in marriage, came before Brown v. Board of Education, before Loving v. Virginia, before an anti-civil rights backlash effort to amend the California state constitution and before a U.S. Supreme Court decision rejecting such efforts to subvert equality, before legislators in most states (including California) were willing to stand against discrimination, and before the polls showed the public's acceptance of equality in marriage or other civil rights. But some state had to show leadership, and the court was properly asked to provide it through a direct and timely challenge to existing discrimination. The court did not flinch. History has upheld it.

Today in Massachusetts, couples in love -- some parents with kids, some together for decades, all taxpaying citizens of this commonwealth who have built lives together and dedicated themselves to one another -- today right here in Massachusetts, hopeful plaintiff couples again stand before another high court and ask for an end to their exclusion from civil marriage, an end to the denial of marriage licenses to people because of their sex and the sex of the person they love.

These couples claim what the California Supreme Court in Perez denoted "the essence of the right to marry [ -- ] the freedom to join in marriage with the person of one's choice."

The couples have reminded the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that the denial of the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage to same-sex couples benefits no one, and is a cruel interference with a choice that properly belongs to the couple. And as the court in Hawaii held, as a wave of courts in Canada have held within the last year, and as the Perez and Loving Courts held over fifty years ago and again over thirty years ago, the state has no good reason -- and certainly no compelling reason -- for the interference, exclusion, and inequality we challenge here.

No one could have done a better job laying out for the court the stakes and rightness of our cause than was done by Massachusetts's own Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. There is no finer gay rights group in this country than GLAD -- and I thrilled when my friend, Mary Bonauto, a national treasure, stood before the SJC to argue for her clients, for all of us. Having enlisted virtually the entire legal establishment of this state, all the major law firms, to file briefs before the court, GLAD presented a range of voices and powerful arguments.

Mary told the justices:
It has always been the role of the courts in our system of government to say when a law draws the wrong line. This is the wrong line. Only "marriage" conveys the love and commitment that others automatically understand and respect. Only "marriage" provides a legal safety net protecting the couple's emotional bonds and their economic security. Equal marriage rights would strengthen these families and the communities of which they are an integral part.

Mary made a brilliant presentation -- and perhaps equally important, as she stood before the court, she herself embodied what our struggle is about: a human face the justices know, a citizen they undoubtedly respect, a civil rights figure who has contributed to the community and the commonwealth, a woman in a loving committed partnership, and a mother of twins.

Now it is up to the justices of the Supreme Judicial Court to fulfill what Federalist Paper No. 78 described as their "duty as faithful guardians of the Constitution."

And we, my friends, must do our job, the nitty-gritty work of social justice in a democratic republic.

We must act now to counteract the intimidation and gloom-and-dooming by our opponents. As they did in Hawaii and in Vermont -- and as they to try to impede, thwart and retard other civil rights strides toward justice-- our opponents are trying to pressure the high court into fearing that the people of this commonwealth are not ready to keep America's promise of equality.

It is our privilege, our opportunity, our duty -- right here, right now -- to bend the course of events by sending a message: good people can rise to the better angels of their nature, the fair-minded people of Massachusetts are ready to accept the justice of inclusion, and history will vindicate this court when it upholds the constitution.

Person to person, group to group, congregation to congregation, each one of must reach and speak out now to underscore the importance of the freedom to marry for real families in communities throughout the commonwealth. Remind them that we gay people, too, have loved ones, need support, want protections for our families, pursue happiness, attend college reunions... and remind them that non-gay people care about us, care about equality.

And we remind our leaders and neighbors of four important facts, underscoring that the sky will not fall when gay people are allowed to take on the commitment of marriage:

FACT ONE: We have, in our lifetimes, seen four major changes in the institution of civil marriage that were at least as "radical" as anything proposed here today:
  • allowing divorce
  • ending race restrictions on marital choice
  • assuring women's equality and completely altering doctrines such as "coverture" (i.e., eliminating married women's loss of legal identity, property, and rights)
  • decoupling procreation decisions from marriage (i.e., Griswold v. Connecticut)

FACT TWO: In each of these civil rights struggles, then as now, opponents of equality prophesied that ending discriminatory restrictions on marriage would lead to disaster. Today they sound foolish at best.

One Georgia court, for example, upheld restrictions on different-race marriage as "unnatural," saying it would lead to children who are "generally sickly, and effeminate. and inferior in physical development and strength."

A Tennessee judge wrote that if interracial marriage were allowed:
We might have the father living with his daughter, the son with the mother, the brother with his sister...The Turk or the Mohammedan, with his numerous wives, may establish his harem at the doors ... Yet none of these are more revolting, more to be avoided, or more unnatural than the case before us.

Opponents of equality also made dire claims, for example, about contraception. One commentator declared that "Japanese birth control devices in the homes of America can be more destructive than Japanese bombers over Pearl Harbor," while bishops issued a statement saying that if the Connecticut legislature ended restrictions on contraception, "within twenty-five years the state will be a mass of smoldering ruins."

In 1844 a New York legislator pleaded with his fellows not to allow married women to own property, because:
If any single thing should remain untouched by the hand of the reformer, it is the sacred institution of marriage [which] is about to be destroyed in one thoughtless blow that might produce change in all phases of domestic life.

A Maryland judge agreed with him, saying that if women retained their legal rights within marriage:
What incentive would there be for such a wife ever to reconcile differences with her husband, to act in submission to his wishes, and perform the many onerous duties pertaining to her sphere? Would not every wife ... abandon her husband and her home?

A host of such cries of gloom and doom by judges, legislators, pundits, and clergy are catalogued in a terrific book, What is Marriage For? by Massachusetts' own E.J. Graff. Or for another example, you could read the letter reported in last week's newspapers ...

FACT THREE: Although Massachusetts would be the first in the U.S. to end sex discrimination in civil marriage, it would not be the first in the world -- and would not be alone in this country for long:
  • Two countries, Holland and Belgium, already allow gay people to marry and are doing just fine
  • Canada on verge (court rulings last year giving two-year deadline, all party leaders endorsing marriage, one way or other likely to see marriage across the border within a year, possibly within months)
  • Progress toward marriage equality and recognition of gay people's families around the world from Europe to South Africa to Israel to South America

By ruling for inclusion and equality, the Supreme Judicial Court would not be bucking the tide, but, rather, riding the wave.

FACT FOUR: The public is ready for leadership. The polls show support for equality growing, particularly among youth.
  • NBC News/WSJ - more than 2/3's of all Americans now believe we will win the freedom to marry -- they have learned to live with it
  • This year's Annual Survey of college freshman - 59.3% support
  • Two recent polls on Catholics:
    • Newsweek (priesthood scandal cover story) - sidebar reported Catholics' view on marriage equality: 47 NO but 44 YES
    • NYT in March 2003: article reporting that of students entering Catholic colleges, majority supports marriage equality and then get more supportive
  • NGLTF did survey of LGBT African-Americans last year - ranked marriage equality as one of their top three concerns

Most recently:
  • NH - AP - 5/24/03 -- 54% support
  • age17-29 = 70% support
  • NJ - working-class, blue-collar, heavily Catholic Hudson County - May 5
  • Jersey Journal 5/503 headline: "Shocking results in gay marriage poll; county 55.6% in favor, most Catholics approve"
  • April 8 - Boston Globe - 50 - 44% support
  • 40-64y.o= 53% support, 18-39 = 62% support,
  • Take note: Youth strongly supports
  • Better than comparable polls at time of Loving: 70% against interracial marriage when court ruled

Politicians - also responding, pushed by our work:
  • Pushed by our demand for equality and by our explicit framing on marriage, candidates - including virtually all the Democratic presidential hopefuls -- have begun to run touting their support "all but marriage," and, increasingly, for marriage equality itself -- ex: Robert Reich
  • As reported a couple months ago: Just two years after the civil unions election battles, VT's Republican governor gave interview: he and the majority don't want to revisit civil unions, people have accepted. Meanwhile over 5000 couples have entered civil union in Vermont, sky hasn't fallen

All this tells us that the public is ready to accept this step toward wholeness, toward equality, toward respect for all families. And that is what we must make sure the Court understands.

Invite the groups, people, and politicians you engage with to consider how their words will sound and actions will look thirty years from now. Gay people by then will have won this civil rights struggle and our society will look back wondering what the big deal was about...

Invite them to picture themselves thirty years from now, removed from the details of today's skirmishes, freed of the burden of having to imagine how we transcend today's pressures to get from here to there... and then to imagine how each of them -- each of us -- will then answer questions from kids, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews about what part we played:
  • did we make a difference?
  • did we stand for the right?
  • did we defend separate and unequal solutions?
  • did we tell families to wait years for justice?

If in this window-period, at this time of moment, in this place of decision, we succeed in reaching out to people of good will -- to neighbors, politicians, opinion-leaders, and indirectly, judges -- and invite them to ask themselves these questions and open their heart, then history shall be made here and justice done.

Join the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts, support GLAD now, speak out, take action, and believe in the possibility of change.

The legacy we can leave together now is a better world, truer to our nation's promise, the pursuit of happiness, and the things that matter in life.

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