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.