Thursday marks the third anniversary of legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts. But even as gay rights advocates celebrate the nearly 10,000 same-sex couples who've officially tied the knot, they are gearing up to fight a measure that might end same-sex marriage altogether.
When Dean Hara married his longtime partner, former Massachusetts Rep. Gerry Studds, he wasn't thinking about the rights, benefits and protections of marriage that advocates always talk about.
"I remember that Monday afternoon," Hara said. "I was sitting in my office thinking, Oh, my Lord. I'm getting married today. It was like these butterflies."
But two years later, Hara's legal rights were very much on his mind when Studds suddenly collapsed, and Hara rushed to the hospital. He spent 10 days there, sitting at Studds' bedside and making complicated medical decisions about his care until the day Studds died.
"All I can say is thank God we were married. Thank God that I could make those decisions. I'm very, very fortunate in that context," Hara said.
But if Hara got to experience the benefits of gay marriage, he also got to see its limitations when he applied to the federal government for survivor benefits such as health insurance, Social Security and Studds' pension.
"Then, of course, I get the letter saying that on the federal level, we are not married," Hara said. "And it is frustrating, it is a slap in the face."
Hara says he's talking with attorneys about ways to challenge the federal Defense of Marriage act that is keeping the federal government from recognizing his marriage.
It's inevitably the next battleground. But right now, advocates say they're gearing up for a more urgent fight to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would kill gay marriage in Massachusetts altogether.
"The moment we are about to head into is huge, and we can't afford to lose here," said Arline Isaacson, a gay rights activist, who has been frantically lobbying lawmakers for the eight additional votes she needs to keep gay marriage alive. The proposed ban has already passed one legislative vote. It needs just one-quarter of lawmakers to pass again and move on to the ballot for final approval.
If that happens, Isaacson says, there's no telling who would win.
"It will be nasty, vicious, divisive," Isaacson said. "Our opponents will use every negative and false stereotype about gay people — that you'll end up with pedophilia, polygamy, bestiality. It's a red herring. It's nonsense, but they use it and it sometimes works."
Protests for and against gay marriage are common. At one such rally in Massachusetts last week, advocates on both sides of the issue gathered, getting their points of view across through honking, cheers and placards.
On one side of the debate are advocates such as Kathy Godbout, 61, who says the past three years prove that letting gays marry does no harm to heterosexuals such as herself.
"The sky hasn't fallen. We're celebrating our 43rd anniversary. It has not hurt my marriage to have equal rights for everyone," Godbout says.
But gay-marriage opponent Joanna Powell, 44, countered, "Right — nothing dramatic has happened in the last three years. But I'm worried about the next 20 to 30 to 40 years."
Powell says the consequences of gay marriage will soon be visible. Jane Finn, 62, says gay marriage has already emboldened schools to promote what she calls a homosexual agenda that is confusing children.
"A lot of the kids coming up are saying they are bisexual," Finn says. "Well, I gotta tell you — what is it, in the water? Is it in the milk? Or is it in the education? I do not want my children like that."
In the past three years, legislative support for gay marriage in the state has tripled to 71 percent. Public approval has climbed more slowly, about 10 points, to just above 50 percent. But neither side really trusts the opinion polls.
"People are not really sharing their innermost feelings with pollsters," said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute. "But in the privacy of the voting booth, they vote according to their heart."
Mineau is also pursuing a strategy of containment. He's fighting efforts to open up Massachusetts' same-sex marriage to couples from any other state.
"It just renders confusion between the states, animosity between the states," he says. "And we have standards in our nation. If every state drove on a different side of the road, it would be chaos."
The first legal clashes over how other states will handle Massachusetts' gay marriages are already brewing. Several New York couples are fighting for recognition of their marriages. And a Rhode Island couple is asking a court to recognize their same-sex marriage — because they want the court to grant them a divorce.