Bill Newman: March to equality remains unfinished

Last modified: Monday, May 27, 2013

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Newman returns today as a regular Gazette columnist. His essays will appear the first Saturday of the month.

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton police chief in February refused to issue a permit for the gay rights parade in early May, asserting that his department could not “handle traffic problems caused by a march of more than 200 people on a Saturday.” The mayor and a majority of the City Council stood shoulder to shoulder with the chief in backing that decision.

The year, appropriately, was 1984.

The previous two years Northampton had hosted the then-nascent annual Gay Rights March on a Saturday in early May, and therein lay the problem. As march committee member Gerry Scoppettuolo explained, “No matter what (city officials) claim, it is because they don’t want lesbians and gays and people who support them to be visible on the streets.” At that time the Northampton parade ordinance gave the police chief unreviewable power to allow or deny a permit for a parade of 200 or more people. So the chief had the law of the city on his side.

But the parade organizers had the First Amendment on theirs. As march organizer Kim Christiansen put it, “People shouldn’t be denied their freedom of speech and right to assemble on a certain day of the week.” The American Civil Liberties Union agreed and sued the city.

After Hampshire County Superior Court Judge George Keady struck down that blatantly unconstitutional ordinance in April 1984 and ordered the city to issue the parade permit, 2,000 people marched. Many wore paper bags over their heads, fearful of being recognized, ostracized from their families and communities and fired from their jobs.

In 1980, the ACLU, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, my law partner Wendy Sibbison and I argued the first gay custody case to be considered by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, indeed the first gay custody case to be heard by any state’s highest court. The court ruled in that guardianship dispute that being a lesbian was irrelevant to assessing Bunny King’s ability to be a good parent, and her daughters were returned home to her.

In 1983, the SJC applied that equality principle to divorce cases and in 1989 Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. In 1990, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services revised its policies so that gays and lesbians could become foster parents on the same basis as heterosexual adults. In 1993, the SJC ruled that gays and lesbians had equal rights to adopt children as well.

The year 2003 brought the biggest victory when our state’s highest court ruled 4-3 that our state constitution guarantees gay couples the same right to marry as heterosexuals, making our commonwealth the first state to legalize marriage equality. Now there are 10.

Across the nation the struggle for LGBT equality has been buffeted by political headwinds and legislative setbacks we haven’t suffered in Massachusetts. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defines marriage for purposes of federal law as between one man and one woman only; 38 states have enacted similar laws or constitutional provisions. Today overshadowing that ignominious history is the anticipation of the Supreme Court’s soon-to-be-announced decisions in two gay marriage cases, one of which is the ACLU case that directly attacks DOMA.

The nation’s highest court in those cases could leave no doubt that the federal constitutional guarantee of equal protection requires all federal and state prohibitions on gay marriage to be struck down. Don’t count on it.

The high court might write an opinion in favor of marriage equality but limit its effect by holding that the states, not the federal government, have the right to define marriage. That opinion would mean that the fight for equal rights for same-sex couples would be battled out state by state.

The court also could rule against equality.

Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, the fight for LGBT rights will continue. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, while writing this week about NBA center Jason Collins coming out (Thank you, Jason Collins!), responded to his readers grousing about his consistent and adamant advocacy for LGBT rights. Bruni said he would cease and desist his advocacy just as soon as “a gay, lesbian or transgender kid isn’t at special risk of committing suicide” and “the federal government outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (it hasn’t)” and immigration laws are changed to treat same-sex couples the same as heterosexual ones “and when coaches don’t hurl basketballs at players heads while yelling ‘faggot’” and “when the Defense of Marriage Act crumbles and our community relationships aren’t relegated to a lesser status, a diminished dignity.”

Fittingly, the theme of this year’s — Saturday’s — Northampton Pride march, with its expected 20,000 participants, is “Our Journey Is Not Complete.”

Attorney Bill Newman of Northampton directs the western Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union and hosts a morning talk show on WHMP.


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