boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
PERSONAL STORIES

Debate humanized issue, legislators

Things were different on Beacon Hill last week. In place of battles over appropriations and bridge repairs, there were impassioned exchanges over lofty ideals of love, equality, and justice.

The debate over same-sex marriage revealed legislators different from the ones to whom the public is accustomed. They listened intently to their colleagues' speeches. They showed rare emotion. They shared personal stories and painful memories in the hopes of swaying each other.

And they did so before the biggest audiences of their careers, their speeches carried on network newscasts and nationwide cable broadcasts.

Some, such as a tearful Senator Dianne Wilkerson, spoke of childhoods of racial discrimination. Representative Alice Wolf shared her memories of the Holocaust. House assistant majority leader Lida Harkins recalled marching to Boston Common for civil rights with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Representative Elizabeth Malia, drawn into the debate by name because she is a lesbian, reminded her colleagues that she is "not the most eloquent speaker, or one of the great minds of this House," and then simply told of her fears: If she were to die, what would happen to Rita, her partner of 30 years. After Malia spoke, her colleagues applauded loudly, and hugged her tightly -- including some on the other side of the issue.

"You can't intellectualize your way though this," Malia said of the debate. "Revealing personal information is a powerful way of communicating with people when there is no other way. This entire two days has just been an incredible emotional experience, I think for all of us."

Rep. Shaun P. Kelly Republican of Dalton: "Liz, this is for you," was the way Shaun P. Kelly began his speech on the floor Thursday.

Kelly had decided on Tuesday to make Malia central to his speech in favor of marriage rights for gays and lesbians. He couldn't think about what he saw as an issue of civil rights without thinking of Malia, he said, and he couldn't speak about it in public without speaking of her. He wanted the people over whom the members of the House and Senate were arguing to have a face, and a familiar one. He stepped into her office to make sure she didn't mind. Malia, eating an egg-salad sandwich, didn't need to think about it.

"My colleagues probably would say they love Liz and admire Liz and respect Liz," Kelly said in an interview. "So I thought, would they really then turn around and vote to enshrine in this document language that keeps Liz as a permanent second-class citizen? I thought it was the best and most appropriate and maybe the most meaningful way to sort of have people look at this from a little bit of a different perspective."

"I suppose I didn't want it to be lost on any of our colleagues that they would be sitting in judgment of a colleague," said Kelly, 39.

During his speech, he spoke slowly and quietly: "Enshrining in the constitution a document under which she leaves the chamber and doesn't have the privileges that other people have cannot possibly jibe with what the constitution and democracy is all about. If you believe that the love Liz has is less than the love you have . . . yourself, I would suggest you are wrong. This is what this is about, the judgment of love."

He proposed the constitutional convention be adjourned, without further votes on amendments that would ban gay marriage. "You can go home and placate groups and spin it any way you want," Kelly told his colleagues. "The longer we stay in session, I think we are hurting ourselves. There is respect in adjourning."

Malia sits directly behind Kelly in the House chamber, and they consider each other friends, though they are political opposites. Malia, who represents the diverse urban area of Jamaica Plain, is a liberal. Kelly, who represents rural Western Massacusetts, is a conservative. He was a staunch opponent of public financing of campaigns, for example. But he was the only House Republican to oppose a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to the union of a man and a woman.

During 14 years in the Legislature, Kelly has seldom risen to speak. But he was calm. During his speech, Malia's eyes filled with tears. Senator Susan Tucker of Andover cried openly.

"We don't normally do this sort of weighty stuff," he said. "The good thing about this is, it's not, `Can we afford to do it? Do we have the money to do this?' There aren't any financial constraints on this at all."

Rep. David L. Flynn Democrat of Bridgewater

When David L. Flynn rose to the microphone Thursday, he was hoping his words would reach beyond his colleagues on Beacon Hill, where the dean of the House has served for decades, to someone closer to home. "I couldn't sleep last night when I came home," he said in the chamber. "On the way in with my wife, we had a deep personal conversation. I have a large family. I lost a member of my family last night because of my vote. Sometimes you have to do what you believe, regardless of the consequences. I say to that member of my family, I love you and want you back in my family. You must understand that I took the oath of office and swore to do what I think is right regardless of party, politics, religion and family. In this case, the people have the right to vote."

Flynn is for "traditional marriage -- one man and one woman," he said, and for civil unions with full benefits for gay couples. He firmly believes the voters should be allowed to decide whether the constitution should be amended to define marriage.

He declined to reveal which member of his family cannot accept that view, but he was still smarting from the falling out Friday. It is the first time his political life has affected family relations, he said.

"I know time heals anything," he said in an interview. "It's just, I felt it was kind of a severe break there. Maybe I overreacted, I'm kind of an emotional guy. It did bother me, because I have such a closely knit extended family. I believe strongly that what I'm doing is the right thing to do. But there is a strongly held belief by some members of my family that I was wrong."

For Flynn, 70, defining marriage as a heterosexual union is, like gravity, a matter of "natural law . . . and you're not going to change natural law, which is one man and one woman, whether it be procreation of trees or flowers, and the 3,000-year-old tradition of same."

Flynn said he was struck during the speeches on Wednesday and Thursday by the extent to which legislators were willing to speak about their own lives. "It made me listen more closely, because I knew how deeply rooted it was with these people, even though I disagree with them," he said.

He said he has never seen a firestorm on Beacon Hill like this one. There have been bigger crowds at the State House, he said, but not the passion and emotion he has seen this week.

"The intransigence on both sides has become like a high-stakes war," he said. "It's almost like both want to kill the other side. And we've got to really look and be patient. We have really just begun the quest for middle ground on this, but I think we can do it."

Healing the rift in his family seemed to be weighing more heavily on Flynn, however.

"In a way, I think it was a failure on my part to recognize this [difference of opinion] earlier," he said. "Maybe I had rose-colored glasses on or something. I would have talked it through more and listened carefully. Maybe I wasn't empathetic enough. I'm not going to change my vote, but I've always prided myself on my empathy, and I didn't do my job."

"But," he added, "we're all imperfect people in an imperfect world."

Rep. Kathleen M. Teahan Democrat of Whitman Kathleen M. Teahan rose shortly before midnight Thursday. The four-term Democrat was the last speaker before the clock ran out, forcing the constitutional convention into recess until March 11. She had been captivated by many of the other speeches, listening with tears in her eyes.

"It's very appropriate that I stand to discuss marriage," she said. "Today is my 33d wedding anniversary."

The members, punchy at the end of a long, emotional day, stood and applauded.

"My husband was 50 and I was 23" when they got married, she said. "No one thought it would work. They said, `This is not normal.' "

But the marriage did work, said Teahan, now 56, just as those of gays and lesbians would work.

When Teahan's husband died, he was remembered for helping others realize "they could be an important person in the world," she said. Continuing in that tradition was the right thing to do, she said. And she knew from her own experience that time has a way of wearing down objections to unusual partnerships. So she could not enshrine the kind of intolerance she encountered 33 years ago in the constitution, she said.

"It seemed to me that every person is an individual, and our race and our religious beliefs and our ages and our intelligence and everything was just one part of us," she said after the debate was over. "But the common thread is that, as human beings, we crave to know love. And I wouldn't want to see us say that one love is better than another love."

Members sensed the momentousness of their decisions, Teahan said. She was especially struck by Wolf's speech, in which she recounted her memories of Nazi Austria, of having to wear a yellow star and not being allowed on the local playground.

"When I hear about that, it makes me realize what an important time this is in all of our lives," Teahan said. "I think we are so blessed in this country. We need to really appreciate what we have, and just work hard to maintain the ideals that our country was founded on."

The debate had been painful and emotional, but it had changed the Legislature, Teahan said, adding dimensions to relationships, bringing some of them closer.

"I think that we have really come to know each other better, and to feel a close bond for each other, no matter what side you're on," she said. "People are soul-searching, and really agonizing."

Rep. Marie J. Parente Democrat of Milford Marie J. Parente said it broke her heart to hear Shaun Kelly put Liz Malia at the center of the debate over the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

"All of a sudden I realized he was taking a vote on a statewide issue, a national issue, a matter of policy, and turning it into one vote against a colleague," said the Milford Democrat, a legislator for 25 years. "It was literally breaking my heart, because I value my friendship with Liz. She is a good person to know, and a gracious lady."

Parente said she thought it wrong to make the debate personal. So when she made her first speech in favor of the constitutional amendment, she stuck to issues. Heterosexual marriages are best for children, she argued, and so the institution of marriage as a heterosexual one should be protected.

"Mother Nature left her blueprint behind, the DNA of a man and a woman," she told her colleagues. "The statute of marriage was enacted to give statutory protection to the family unit, the man and woman and the children they create. Mother nature used the pattern to populate the world."

But then, after hearing some of the other speeches, Parente got frustrated, and decided to make a point, she said, coming to the microphone a second time. She had been a foster child, Parente said. So maybe the next time a vote on a matter concerning foster children comes up, everybody should cast votes as gifts for her, just as they were being asked to cast them out of regard for Malia on the constitutional amendment, she said.

"So long as this is personal, I was a foster kid," Parente said at the rostrum. "Talk about discrimination. I was placed in various homes. I was 7 years old when a little girl told me she couldn't play with me because I was a [foster] kid.

"I was trying to make a point that there are experiences that color our lives, and bring us to the microphone, but we must move beyond those issues that mark our lives," Parente, 75, said in an interview.

But then Parente conceded that personal stories can sometimes be important in the chamber.

"Sometimes, it lets your colleagues know that you're not coming from a biased view, that no organization is behind you," she said. "It lets them know you're real, you're human."

And when it comes down to it, Parente's time as a foster child formed her views on same-sex marriage. She knows children would rather be with both of their natural parents, she said, because that is what she wanted.

"As a foster child I had the best possible foster home," she said. "But even though I had the best, it's not the same. If we can give the kids what they really want, they would prefer to go home to their mothers and fathers. If this really is about kids, we owe it to them to give them the best we can. I am a former foster kid who knows what it is to be living in someone else's home who is not your parent, no matter how loving, and I was loved in that family. It's incumbent on all of us to give a child the most natural family we can give them."

The Same-Sex Marriage Debate
One year later
photo galleries
NECN Video
SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives