A Lawmaker Who Won't Forever Hold His Peace
Gay Marriage Opponent Draws The Line in His Massachusetts Town
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2004; Page C01
FITCHBURG, Mass. -- Boston Herald columnist Mike Barnicle has called him a "rube with a room temperature IQ," but at least Emile Goguen, a 71-year-old veteran legislator in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has a plan. It is a quixotic plan, to be sure. To stop same-sex marriages, to put the genie firmly back in the social-experiment bottle, Goguen is trying to unseat the four justices of the state Supreme Judicial Court who voted in favor of allowing gay couples to marry.
Goguen proposes using a complicated grievance process built into the state constitution, a process used successfully only a handful of times over the past two centuries, and one that is seen, even by opponents of gay marriage, as a kind of nuclear escalation in an already bitter battle. It is a plan going nowhere fast. ("It's not taken very seriously on Beacon Hill," says a State House insider.) Even Gov. Mitt Romney, who opposes gay marriage, is cool to it.
But having a plan, any plan -- even if it's a plan Barnicle called "moronic" in a column last month -- is at least something at a moment when it seems that opponents of gay marriage have been trounced.
"I knocked the [expletive] out of him once," Goguen says, amiably, of the columnist who, like the legislator, was bred in Fitchburg, a small city in north central Massachusetts. Sitting in his office in the State House in Boston, Goguen is more concerned with defending the honor of his home town, which Barnicle, an ex-Fitchburgian, also insulted. Fitchburg is a small city in an area of Massachusetts that is not particularly liberal, that doesn't support gay marriage, and apparently lacks a large gay population. If gay marriage can be stopped in Massachusetts, it will be because momentum against it grows in places like Fitchburg.
But Fitchburg embodies the paradox of the gay marriage debate now that the marrying business has begun in earnest. How do you get Fitchburg to care? Drive the streets of this industrial city, a city with a lot of brick and boarded-up store fronts, a city just waiting for Richard Russo to write a novel about it, and the only signs of political life are some discontent about the prospect of widening Route 12.
The mayor, a genial Republican named Dan H. Mylott, announces upfront that he doesn't even want to talk about gay marriage.
"It's a very quiet community," says Mylott. The gay community, he says, is tiny, so small that he knows, by name, the first couple to apply for a marriage license: a local antiques dealer and his partner. And according to Anna Farrell, the city clerk, there were only four same-sex marriage licenses issued as of yesterday, in a city of about 39,000. By contrast, Cambridge (with a population of approximately 100,000) processed more than 220 applications for same-sex marriage on Monday, the first day it was legal to submit them.
Which means that, in Fitchburg, gay marriage is something that exists mostly as a function of the nightly news and newspapers -- a story from "out there" in the wider world.
Goguen isn't daunted. During the exhausting debates this spring, as legislators struggled with amending the state constitution to prohibit, or limit, gay unions, Goguen says no one worked harder than he did to put an end to same-sex marriage. His constituents, he says, were solidly behind him. E-mails, calls, letters, were running 90 percent opposed to gay unions.
"Maybe it went down to 80 percent," as time went on, he says. But no matter the number, the people of Fitchburg are not ready for the idea.
"Who's going to be the mom? Who's going to be the pop?" he asks. Just doesn't make sense, he says.
The problem with common sense, as an argument against gay marriage, is that common sense is best at dismissing things that are foreign or so new as to be self-evidently weird. But same-sex marriage proponents argue that, as these marriages become commonplace, they will lose their frightening aspect.
"It will be the same old America," Cheryl Andrews, chairman of the Provincetown Board of Selectmen said last week as she and her giddy town on Cape Cod prepared for a same-sex marriage boomlet. "We'll have the same old war, the same old problems. The difference is I will have a different next of kin. That's okay. The rest of the country will figure that out."
There's a paradox taking shape in Massachusetts: Once the party is over, gay people are waiting for normality to set in and opponents of gay marriage are waiting for just the opposite. They opposed gay marriage as abnormal, and now, more than anything, they need to see a little catastrophe. The question is, when?
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
State legislator Emile Goguen says his constituents are strongly opposed to same-sex marriages.
(Robert Spencer For The Washington Post)