In the 2003 case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Court voted 4-3 to legalize same-sex marriage. Though the landmark case represented the nation’s first unqualified court victory in the fight for marriage equality, many people from across the country disagreed with the decision.
The public backlash was swift. Northeastern alumnus and adjunct professor Roderick L. Ireland, then an associate justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court who sided with the majority, received thousands of hateful emails, letters, and phone calls. Radio advertisements pressed him to step down while angry opponents stalked to his church, urging members of the congregation to excommunicate him. And yet Ireland did not waver, did not think twice about continuing to serve on the bench.
“Criticism is democracy in action,” explained Ireland, who was sworn in as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 2010. “People have a right to their own opinions and hearing people say, ‘I disagree,’ is not something a judge takes personally.”
Ireland was one of three panelists who reflected on the personal, public, and political ramifications of same-sex marriage on Wednesday evening in the Raytheon Amphitheater. The event, “Gay Rights after Gay Marriage,” represented the sixth installment in an educational series on civic sustainability, which is hosted by Distinguished Professor of Political Science Michael Dukakis in conjunction with the Presidential Council on Inclusion and Diversity. The series—Conflict. Civility. Respect. Peace. Northeastern Reflects—is organized by the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, the School of Law, and the Office of Student Affairs, and will return in 2014.
In addition to Ireland, the panelists comprised Mary Bonauto, a Northeastern alumna and the civil rights director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders; and Suzanna Walters, a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at Northeastern.
Northeastern law professor Margaret Burnham moderated the two-hour discussion, which challenged the panelists to reflect on the implications of two landmark decisions in the fight for same-sex rights: the 2003 case in Massachusetts and last summer’s Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act.
Bonauto served as lead counsel in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health and led GLAD’s challenges to the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA, which defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.
She empathized with the quartet of Massachusetts Supreme Court judges who were censured for voting in favor of same-sex marriage, saying that “no court will ever suffer as much as this one did.”
“They realized they would take a pounding for standing for their principles,” she added, “but these same principles caused people to rally for this decision, which lifted up gay people in this state and across the nation.”
According to GLAD, 54 percent of the U.S. population currently favors same-sex marriage, up from 27 percent in 1996.
“None of this would have happened without the work of people who weren’t content to sit on the sidelines and got deeply involved in political life in the city, the state, and the country,” said Dukakis, who appointed Ireland to the Massachusetts Court of Appeals in 1990, when he was governor.
Walters said marriage equality is a “civil rights no-brainer,” but questioned whether the gay rights movement’s acute focus on same-sex marriage has inadvertently detracted from other concerns within the community.
“There’s only so much gay money to go around,” said Walters, noting that activists spent $44 million trying to defeat Proposition 8 in the 2008 California state elections. “Focusing on gay marriage means less focus on equal access to employment and the persecution of the LGBT community abroad.”
“No other social movement worth its salt has been so identified with a single civil right,” she added. “Abortion rights are central to feminist demands, but they never crowded out other concerns such as violence against women.”
In the Q-and-A session, a senior studying Spanish and journalism asked the panelists to discuss the similarities and differences between gay rights in the U.S. and abroad. “Our way of understanding sexual identity is particular and not necessarily shared by other nations, which have different histories of thinking about the body and its relationship to desire and identity,” Walters said. “As we engage in international struggles around gay marriage, we need to understand the terms of the discourse may be very different.”