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?

"Basically, one generation," says Kris Mineau, acting president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a group that has played a leading role in trying to prevent same-sex marriage. "Since there are already a number of gay adoptions in the last seven or eight years, I would say 15 years, and we would start seeing the results."

But if you believe that gay people getting married (and adopting, or raising one partner's children) will lead to social disaster, you can't wait a generation. And there are opponents of same-sex marriage who think there will be a clear sense of doom much sooner. Mineau worries about churches being forced to hire gay employees, or marry gay people, and that public schools will have to include positive depictions of homosexuality in sex education.

Russell Berg, an advocate from the seaside town of Sandwich, sees all that, and worse.

"My question is: Polygamy anyone? Incest anyone?" he says. "Where do you draw the line?"

But there doesn't seem to be a major political constituency for incest or polygamy (at least not in Massachusetts). And if one doesn't develop, and if churches aren't forced to marry gay people (an unlikely prospect), what happens to the fear, the alarm, that animated much of the opposition?

Already, you can hear the language and emphasis of the debate shifting, from the old arguments about tradition (or in Goguen's case, common sense) to one of disenfranchisement. It is now articulated primarily in terms that have animated Massachusetts voters since the days it was a British colony: representation, fairness, democracy. Judges shouldn't legislate, they argue. That takes the decision-making power away from the people.

It's not a new argument, and it does have wide resonance, but, perhaps, less force than arguments based on fear. Everyone, everywhere in this country, feels a little disenfranchised. Everyone always wants to throw the bums out, turn the government on its ear, teach them a lesson.

But we rarely do.

Mineau thinks it can happen.

But it's a long process. Opponents must win enough seats in the legislature to control the arcane legislative process when the next constitutional convention rolls around, sometime in 2005. And then they're faced with a dilemma: support an existing compromise amendment that would ban gay marriage but allow equivalent civil unions, or pass something they like better, an outright ban on gay marriage without civil unions. But according to state law, the outright ban couldn't be voted on by the people until 2008, while the compromise won't go on a state-wide ballot until 2006. Meanwhile, the marriages will proceed.

And with the marriages proceeding, opponents seem to be arguing with joy, happiness and love. The media can balance images of same-sex marriage with voices from the opposition, but the marriage images have proved surprisingly benign, focusing less on latent sexual fears (people of the same sex kissing, or men in dresses) and more on the festivity and celebration. How do you argue with that, without seeming churlish?

"It's always, 'Look at how happy they are, look at how happy their kids are,' " says Berg, a bit bitterly. "Why should we deny them this joy?"

Perhaps that's why Gov. Romney, who vehemently opposes gay marriage, has kept a low profile during the past week. And why the immediate standard bearers in the battle are people like Goguen, who represents a city where only handful of homosexual couples applied to marry.

"Let the governor dismiss the four of them, appoint someone new, reconvene and overturn this decision," says Goguen. The process for unseating judges (and undoing court decisions) isn't quite that simple, but it sounds good. And at least it's a plan.

Massachusetts Rep. Emile Goguen wants to unseat the four state justices who voted for gay unions.State legislator Emile Goguen says his constituents are strongly opposed to same-sex marriages.