With Gay Rights in the National Crosshairs, What Makes New England So Friendly?

7gfwryMy little brother is getting married in June and he’s asked me to be his best man, which fills me with immeasurable joy. For years, my family has been bugging my brother to get married. His fiancee and he have lived together for eight years—they’re soul mates and the two most stubborn people on the planet. Which is why, every time we bugged him about it, he probably mentally added on another month to the date he’d pop the question. The joke I’ve been telling him all this time is, “Hey, Mike, you don’t even have the excuse that you’re not getting married in support of your gay brother,” since he lives in what was until recently the only state in the union where gays and lesbians can openly marry.

I grew up in New England and it’s been weirdly ironic for me to be in California for the last few months, as the battle over gay marriage rages. At my high school in Massachusetts, we had a Gay-Straight Alliance. We had weekly support groups, which my friends and I dubbed “The Muffin Club.” I was not the first, nor even the second, third or fourth person in my school to come out of the closet and I’ve always felt that a lot of my perspective as a gay person has been shaped by the fact that I was able to come out at 16, just a few years after most of my straight friends started dating. My ex-girlfriend’s been married to her wife for years now. I see Facebook photos of Boston friends getting married all the time. I have straight pals from high school urging me to move home after hearing about all the Prop 8 bullshit in California. In one corner of the country, the Promised Land has all but arrived. Why?

Every state in New England either has gay marriage or has a marriage bill in the legislature this year.

The six states that make up New England – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont – are, from the perspective of LGBT rights, the most fair and equitable in the nation. All of them offer homosexuals employment discrimination and hate crime protection, and all but Maine give gays and lesbians protection under the Fair Housing Act. While three of the states currently ban same-sex marriage, all of them offer some form of union for gays and lesbians. And of course, Massachusetts and Connecticut are the only two states in the union to offer gay marriage. Most shocking of all is that, for most New Englanders, none of this is that big a deal.

Is it just that New England is a liberal, Kennedy-lovin’ bastion of godless heathens or does the cradle of liberty have a lesson for the rest of the U.S.?

1108475562_4404Let’s get some assumptions about New England out of the way first. The first is that New England is the land of crazy liberals. There are a lot of crazy liberals in New England, for sure—there are times I go back to Boston after all these years and the place does feel like a socialist utopia. But the rest of the region is far more diverse. For instance, go up to New Hampshire and you’ll find every stripe of conservative you could imagine. It’s a place whose motto is “Live Free or Die” and where you regularly see pick-up trucks with Confederate flag decals on their windows driving up Route 93. Don’t try to explain the Mason-Dixon line to these fellows – they’re not interested – but it’s still the state whose Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson, was the first openly gay ordained bishop in the Anglican faith. Maine is even a bit conservative, and deeply, proudly rural. Vermont and its Ben n’ Jerry’s and Birkenstock’s balance things out, but despite its reputation, the region is far more politically diverse than it appears.

So what makes New England so friendly towards gays and lesbians?

This strong protection and focus on at-risk LGBT youth didn’t arise from thin air. After a wave of gay suicides in the state in 1992, Republican Governor Bill Weld formed the Commission on GLBT Youth and added a “Gay and Lesbian Students’ Rights Law” to provide a broad range of protections for LGBT students.

new-hampshire-episcopal-bishop-gene-robinsonNew England has a long history of protecting the rights of minorities, if you’re willing to overlook all the early Puritanical witch burnings. The region was a hotbed of abolitionism in the years leading up to the Civil War and even the conservative areas of New England view their conservatism through the lens of religious and political liberty. It’s no surprise then that the region would support LGBT nondiscrimination and protection rights.

What’s more interesting and instructive is how marriage made its way to the region. There’s no denying that the 2004 ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court requiring the state to offer same-sex marriage had a lasting impact on the both the region and the nation. The relatively small size of the New England states meant that all the surrounding states were forced to deal with Massachusetts marriage, even if the Defense of Marriage Act absolved them from doing so. A gay man visiting his husband in a Rhode Island hospital was less likely to be treated as a non-family member, even though the state does not recognize gay marriage. In Maine, the fact that gay marriage could bring as much as $60 million to the state’s economy has boosted the chance of a gay marriage bill introduced this year passing. In short, each state has become a mini-marriage laboratory, discovering ways to work LGBT rights into law.

At this point, a consensus is emerging. Every state in New England either has gay marriage or has a marriage bill in the legislature this year. Connecticut, which began gay marriages last November is in the process of passing legislation that would abolish civil unions and make existing unions into marriage. While the President and Congress believes civil unions could be an adequate compromise, in practice, New England has demonstrated that the word “marriage” does confer certain rights and privileges that can not be obtained through any other means.

But is New England a true snapshot of things to come? In some ways, New England is still an anomaly. In much of the country, LGBT rights and protections are still viewed as being “special rights.” Religious organizations hold a greater sway in the south and in the west than they do in New England, and the types of churches that hold sway in those regions are more intolerant of gay people than New England’s predominantly Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches. The vast size of Western states and historical animosity towards each other also make it less likely that they’ll feel a need to reciprocate each others equal rights bills.

In other ways, that answer must be yes. Once you start down the path of equal rights and protections for gays and lesbians, it becomes harder and harder to stop at anything less than full equality. In addition, despite DOMA, states can not ignore their neighbors’ gay rights laws. In fact, both New England and New Jersey are now playing catch-up with New York and New Jersey in particular, looks like it may shortly embrace gay marriage. The Boston-based law group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders have set a target of 2012 for all the New England states to get gay marriage on the books, at which point, the dams may very well burst.

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  • Hubbaduh

    Great article :) Thanks for sharing…I’ve lived most of my life in the South, and honestly don’t know a whole lot about NE or the culture there (unless it’s somehow sports related…I am a lesbian after all :P ).

  • Mrs. Chili

    I’m proud to live in New England (despite our wicked winters). For all that we’re doing a lot of equality-related things right, we’ve still got a long way to go. As a GLBTQ ally (and a teacher and a parent), I spend a lot of my energy working for that full equality; it’s not “equality” unless it applies to EVERYONE.

  • Sebbe

    Thanks for the article Japhy. Couldn’t agree more. I grew up mostly in Connecticut and now live in Boston. I think the biggest difference on a whole that affects our culture here is the lack of religious intrusion into our lives. We watch the the news and see the big crazy mega churches and evangelicals. We don’t have to deal with that, they have no foot hold here. Most people are those protestants or Catholics that go to church on Christmas and Easter (creasters). They pay little attention to the doctrine coming from the Vatican in a whole slew of areas and pick and choose what they want.

    Like you said, New England is very diverse from its cities to its rural landscape, but their is a common identity and with the general populace gay marriage is just not an issue here that gets people worked up. Gay marriage in Connecticut went through with barely a protest and “made the nightly local news” their was a few articles in the local papers the next day. That was it.

    As we are geographically separated (as well as culturally to a large degree) from the rest of the nation we possibly (and probably) like to think we associate closer to western Europe. You can almost smell the scent of “old Europe” hanging in the air in many places.

    New Englanders like to think of the region as historical, but pulsating with innovation (specifically when it comes to ideas). Academia is obviously held in high regard (you would be hard pressed to find a city more influenced by its dominate universities than Boston) by all and you will find even those without advanced educations are often fairly well informed due to the strong support of the public school system throughout the region, as well as a relatively high percentage of people with degrees both undergraduate and advance (this hold especially true in the Boston metro area and Connecticut).

    While any native could list for you the “extreme” differences between someone from Connecticut, Mass or Rhode Island and those in northern New England will often scoff at us “flat landers”, we real are in essence one super state. Most New Englanders have family spread out throughout the region and are very accustomed to traveling from little state to little state. We have no choice but to encounter are neighbors are every turn.

    While we are arguable one of the most liberal areas of the country, like Japhy mentioned you will still find “republicans”, but they are of a different sort and you can almost be guaranteed that they will be solely fiscal conservatives and in New Hampshire libertarianesque.

    Go New England!! Leading the nation once again!!

  • Pete

    The few conservative pockets in New England-parts of New Hampshire and Maine are ‘liberal’ compared to many areas to the west and south. The region is in fact a ‘nation within itself’, it is so vastly different then many other parts of the nation.

    Here in Connecticut we do have hay marriage and equal protection under the law for discrimination, and strong hate crime bills.

    Is the rest of the nation so far behind- perhaps like 30- 50 years socially? Obviously many parts of the USA still have a ‘Plantation style social and economic idealogy, that is not much different then before the civil war.

  • conrad

    the regional plan for gay marriage in new england is depressing…

    maine has plenty of bigger issues, as it is noted to be one of the more conservative, rural and poor states in new england, that are more of a priority than gay marriage for most queers (access to health care, employment, and housing in a tanking economy).

    in a survey done by Family Affairs Newsletter (a queer newsletter from bangor) nearly 80% of polled respondents said gay marriage was NOT a priority.

    so why is it that this regional planned is being pushed in our state? we’ve got bigger issues to tackle and all this money (equality maine said they are spending $2.4 million on the gay marriage campaign) is being tossed at legislation most queers don’t think is a priority. imagine the change we could actually make for queer people in this state with $2.4 million! fuck!!!

    hmmmm…. maybe if this article actually contained some research instead of just editorializing it would be more interesting.

  • radg

    Yes, I always want to move out of Mass because I can’t handle the winters anymore (like today, snowing a bunch after 65 on Sat.) BUT I realize I have all my rights here, and pot is decriminalized, I really couldn’t ask for much better!

  • ask ena


    What about the supposed $60,000,000 gay marriage is supposed to bring INTO Maine’s economy? Sounds like a worthy stimulus to me…

    I agree with most of the comments above. Raised in Connecticut, I now live in Southern California. I find the conservatives out here to be WAY scarier than east coast conservatives…and for the most part, way more ignorant.

    I recently read Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”, and it put an entirely new perspective on gay rights in the US, and particularly in New England. While we think of New England (historically) in terms of strong religious views and puritanical values, we should remember that the people who came to build New England, came to escape their own persecution and find freedom for themselves. Additionally, the value of education to them was second only to doing God’s work.

    But as many have pointed out, it seems like gay right is a generational issue, and therefore a numbers game. Which makes it all the more imperative that WE are the ones educating. Education and truth, NOT fearmongering and lies, will ultimately win us our rights.1

  • conrad

    gay marriage will not bring $60 million to maine. where are you getting these numbers? that sounds like a load of bull to me…

  • Erick

    So I guess it all comes down to religion, how you view it and its influence on the culture.

    Some friends and I were having a conversation a while back about how is it possible that stoutly conservative Latinamerica is getting ahead of the “land of the free” on equality issues and we rapidly came to the same conclusion: in LA the separation between church and state is clear and definite, it might have its influence at the personal level but it has no power to shape public policy. It may express an opinion, but if tries to influence policy its rapidly shutdown from across many sectors of society.

    Now, I know Im generalizing since Im talking about a region and not a country, but the fact is that every one of those countries is more willing to draw from its cultural neighbors and the mentality of equality is moving rapidly across borders.

  • Mike

    There are two other things that make new England unique that I’d like to highlight: MassEquality and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). I’ve volunteered with these two GLBT civil rights organizations over the past 5 years, and they truly are amazing. I don’t believe we’d have gay marriage anywhere today without them.

    One’s a political organization, the other a legal organization, but the unifying theme between them is their desire not just to change the law but to change people’s perceptions through education and intense grass-roots organizing. We easily could have lost marriage equality if it wasn’t for their intense desire to speak with as many people as possible about the issue, and to form a network of supporters throughout the state, so that every state legislator spoke with GLBT families (and often close friends or supporters who were GLBT). When the issue isn’t simply abstract, but is about friends or family losing their rights, it’s a different ball game.

    And perhaps most importantly, the gay community stood by those who stood by us. Not a single legislator who voted for marriage equality has lost a re-election bid. We’ve shown they can stand up for equality without losing their job.

    So yes, history and people of this region are amazing. But equally amazing are the organizers and advocates fighting for equality. Together, we make an amazing team.

  • John Smith

    New Englanders tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Your life and how you live it are your business and not someone else’s. No one else is going to take care of you, either, so people expect less from their government. It’s a small region of the country, independent minded, and proud to be different.

  • Sebbe

    @conrad – Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law did the study.

    Do you even live in Maine or New England for that matter? The Maine Inn Keepers and Tourism Associations have been advocating this. It has been all over the regional news. 60 Million may not seem like a lot, but it is to a state with a small population like Maine.

    Portland Press Herald-http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/story.php?id=241173

    Kennebec Journal- http://kennebecjournal.mainetoday.com/news/local/5969914.html

    365gay.com – http://www.365gay.com/news/maine-inkeeps-say-gay-marriage-could-save-industry/

    Bangor Daily News – http://www.bangornews.com/detail/100813.html

    WBZTV – http://wbztv.com/mainewire/22.0.html?type=local&state=ME&category=n&filename=ME–GayMarriage-Econo.xml

    Opposing Views Portland – http://www.opposingviews.com/articles/research-same-sex-marriage-would-boost-economy-significantly

  • Raven

    Conrad. You sound like one of those self hating log cabin rebunlicans. Equality take peesidence over everything. If people would pull their heads out of their bibles and asses 2.4 million COULD be spent elsewhere.

  • Chitown Kev

    Well, considering where I live now, the New England winters certainly wouldn’t be an issue. Besides, I’ve lived here for almost 20 years, I love, but I am a little tired of it so…

  • mark

    Great article but… Please Don’t forget that in Massachusetts lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are still over 4 times more likely to attempt suicide, and still need services like those offered by the Boston Alliance of LGBT Youth. It’s not a utopia everywhere for everyone.

  • Sebbe

    @Chitown Kev – Come on over – LOL.

    I love Chicago the city itself, but the impression I get of the region is that the further you get from Chicago the more like California and other places in the country it gets and the worse it gets, especially when speaking about religion. Any input Kev?

  • Chitown Kev


    It depends. Liberalism is slowly (too slowly for my tastes) but surely spreading throughout Illinois. But this is still one of those Reagan Democrat or “Rednecks for Obama” type states, overall. But the Republicans here are not as hard right as, say, in Orange County or Fresno, hard right Republicans don’t get elected in Illinois.

    One of the strangest elections was the Governor’s race in 1998 where the Republican, George Ryan (now in jail), was for gun control and the Democrat, Glenn Poshard, was against gun control.
    Ryan ran that race the only way a Republican can in Illinois. And the Repubs here always court the Log Cabins.

    As far as religion is concerned, Catholicism is pretty big, but other religions, not so much. But then again I am in that Chicago cocoon, so I could be wrong.

  • Pete

    Connecticut for the most part remains a liberal bastion- suburbs mostly vote Democratic, as do the cities. Small towns (under 5,000) are a tossup.

    Western CT in the Litchfield Hills- the home of many Celebs is the most republican-although Salisbury is considered one of the most liberal towns in the US. southwestern CT in Fairfield county has some very liberal places like Westport, Norwalk, Bridgeport- and some very republican towns like Darien.

    Greater Hartford is one of the most liberal congressional districts in the nation- and greater New Haven is as well. Eastern CT is mixed- with Mansfield where the University of CT is located as very liberal, while Eastford is very republican- Norwich is very Democratic as is New London.

    Connecticut as a whole does not see the huge disparity of political idealogy however between city and rural areas as other parts of the nation.

  • Lauren

    Great article, made me proud to be from Massachusetts. As much as I gripe about New England (as some people have said, our winters are…ugh) and some people around here are a little TOO liberal for my taste, I do love how open-minded and accepting we are. I grew up with kids who had two moms or two dads or a mom dating another woman, etc and it totally didn’t phase me.

  • Brianna

    The link for GLAD needs to be fixed – it doesn’t go anywhere.

    p.s. Massachusetts here. It’s snowing heavily even though it’s almost spring. Haha.

  • conrad


    because i actually question the direction the mainstream GLBT movement is going does not make me a self hating log cabin republican. it makes me a critical thinker (we have hotter sex too!). perhaps if you could pull yr head out of the NGLTF’s and HRC’s ass you could ask interesting questions that aren’t knee jerk liberal reactionary garbage…


    yes, i do indeed live in one of the poorest towns in maine north of portland. does that make me a credible voice now? those statistics are based on a think tank. think tanks create subjective information under the guise of objective science to back up their already set hypothesis. who paid for the study? who were the people actually involved in the study? i’m not a wing nut, i just don’t trust think tanks. there is too much money at stake…

    anywhere north of bourgeois southern maine will not see a cent of pink dollars from honeymooning gays from massachusetts (what the inn and tourism industry really care about). and gay marriage license fees are not going to save our tanking economy.

  • John

    New Hampshire isn’t as hick like as you would leave some to believe, in northern New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont there are some who are still very conservative, but they are really such a small minority.

    New Hampshire passed civil unions with out a court order and with out any real fuss, it was really not a big deal, I do think same sex marriage will be a little harder to pass, BUT It’s not easy to pass an amendment in New Hampshire, you need to have a constitutional convention, which must be approved by both houses by a three/fifths vote, then it has to be put on the ballot to see if the voters want the convention, if that passes then we must vote again to choose delegates to head the convention and the delegates must agree by three/fifths vote on what amendments to put on the ballot, and then finally the amendment would go before the voters and would need at least two-thirds vote for it to pass. So I am hopeful that if marriage equality passes through both houses and is signed into law by our governor, it would be almost impossible to be taken away by the amendment process.

    I’m looking forward to have 6 by 2012 become reality.

  • dsdrane

    I think Maine’s two U.S. Senators represent nicely the state’s particular political bent: both women and both Republican. To paraphrase my family’s view: they may be Republicans, but they’re OUR Republicans.

    It was no surprise to me — or, I imagine, anyone else familiar with Maine politics — that these two women would break party lines over Pres. Obama’s stimulus bill…not when one considers it was Maragret Chase Smith who was one of the very first to fire a shot over Joseph McCarthy’s bow in the 1950s.

    Growing up in a former mill-town in Central Maine, I left as quickly as my feet could carry me; but, coming back annually as an adult, I’m reminded of what makes this upper-righthand corner of the country (and New England, for that matter) special. I imagine Maine will eventually come into line with the rest of New England with respect to gay rights. But I also imagine it may take a while.

  • Brian

    I would just add one other New England oddity, two of the religions born in New England, the Congregationalists (United Church of Christ) and Unitarians, are huge backers of gay marriage. Like other mainline protestant churches their influence is dwindling, but you’ll still see their churches at the center of every New England town. For centuries the New England elite belonged to these churches, and went to the schools affiliated with these churches (Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and lots of prep schools). So to the extent that religion is important in New England, (which is less so than in other regions) its impact is muted as the main protestant churches are very pro-gay marriage (plus the Episcopalian gay bishop in New Hampshire adds more weight to that side of the argument). The fundamentalists are a very small minority, so all you really have on the anti side is the Catholic church, which doesn’t carry neary the weight it used to due to various scandals and its members growing old/moving away.

  • Tony Pelliccio

    Actually in RI the bill has been before one house or another for the past thirteen years. I’m encouraged by the House bill this year, H5744 by Rep. Arthur Handy (D) Cranston.

    The House has 78 members and he has 31 co-sponsors on the bill. I’ve also been told that if it moves to a vote, there are anywhere from 5 to 7 who would definitely be counted on to vote for it. That’s just about half the House.

    The Senate is a bit more of an effort but I think if the House sends a bill they’ll approve it too.

    Otherwise RI is in an untenable situation. My prediction is if the legislature continues to balk at marriage equality we’ll see a court challenge here too, even though GLAD thinks we wouldn’t win.

    And in RI our main source of opposition is the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence. Sure, the National Organization for Marriage now has a RI chapter, but the Catholic Bishop is neck deep in the issue.

  • Ted B. (Charging Rhino)

    I would add New Jersey to that list, we’ve had fairly-broad gay civil-rights for years and years; workplace, family and housing, public accomodation…and civil unions recently that are likely to become gay marriage without a lot of controversy. To many outside NJ, it’s fairly invisible since we don’t have much in the way of gay culture due the proximity of New York City and Philadelphia. In-fact, over the leat twenty-years, the gay bars, clubs, etc… have closed since they’re increasingly irrevalent.

    By comparison, in New York and Pennsylvania it’s only in NYC and Philadelphia-proper that one has legal protections. In the suburban counties of both states there’s little protection under the law even in Westchester, Long Island or Philly’s Main-Line communities.

  • Forrest

    I live in North Carolina. I am out and proud every day. Those of us that deal with open bigotry all the time in the majority of this country get pissed off at being segregated and looked down upon because we don’t live in a bubble.

    Wisconsin was the first state to implement gay rights legislation BTW. They have fallen behind since then but New England is not some perfect paradise. I can’t stand the winters up there and would never move there. I guess this makes me inferior to all of you. Well we are fighting here every day and making progress. Instead of pretending the whole country reflects a handful of small states. We would like support not sneering insults.

  • interglossa

    One other thing. Unlike NY or California most of the gay community in Mass. were born and grew up here. We had two years of Thanksgivings and Xmas holidays to tell our extended families about the anti gay marriage referendum and they backed us up.

  • Mike

    You can talk about California all you want, but when it came down to it, I always knew Prop 8 would pass. California is not what people like to think it is, it’s not that liberal or gay friendly, as the guise of Hollywood would make it seem.

    When it comes down to it, you Californians will never beat us bleeding heart – blue blooded New Englanders. Gay marriage stands a better chance in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and even New York and New Jersey than it ever did in California. Jealous?

  • Mike


    Pointing out what has gone right in one are of the country (New England) with regards to one small aspect of what it means to live there (GLBT rights) isn’t the same as looking down on the rest of the country, or thinking the rest of the country is inferior. New England has its pluses and minuses just like the rest of the country does. This isn’t about insulting anyone. It’s about recognizing that, if we want to see equal rights nation-wide, we need to learn from our failures and our successes, and try to apply those lessons. I fully recognize that people in your state, and dozens of states like yours, are fighting hard every day. The question asked in this article is whether or not there are lessons that can be learned from the successful fights in New England that can help you in your battles. I’d like to hope that the answer is yes. Because whatever you may think of a New England ‘bubble’, please don’t assume that it wasn’t, and doesn’t remain, a battle ground. Those of us who fought to maintain marriage equality in MA can attest to the fact that it was a hard-fought battle that we almost lost on several occasions. We only won because of darn hard work.

  • Sonny

    It ain’t gonna happen homos. If anything more and more states will pass constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman…

  • Kit


    Forrest – come on. New England is America’s dowdy spinster aunt, so let us enjoy a little love for once. The South still has better weather, cuter accents, and friendlier people.

  • Kit


    Sure it’s going to happen, and it already is. I’m sure more states will pass gay marriage bans before all is said and done, but they won’t accomplish much in the long run when the social basis for them is collapsing all around us. They’ll just be repealed when a majority of the public has shifted in favor of gay marriage, which has already happened in the most liberal parts of the country and will probably happen in most of the rest of the country sooner than people think. Even the staunchest opponents of gay marriage know deep down that it’s going to happen eventually.

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