News & Politics

Northeast States Take the Lead in the Battle for Gay Rights

Connecticut just legalized same-sex marriage. The next marriage-celebration fireworks will likely be set off in New Jersey, New York and Vermont.
A recent ruling by Connecticut's top court in favor of marriage for gay couples will speed up the marvelous synergy accelerating advances in the Northeast.

(If you, like me, are a bit geographically challenged, glance at a map as you read along.)

With the exception of Pennsylvania, the region's nine states have painted themselves gay-friendly lavender by protecting and nurturing gay couples. Connecticut, where gay couples will start marrying in mid-November, follows northern neighbor Massachusetts in declaring that its state constitution forbids treating gay couples differently, including by offering us a separate "civil union" category of rights.

Connecticut has no residency requirement, meaning any gay couple can go there to marry.

That wasn't true in Massachusetts until the Legislature and governor this summer erased a law enacted in 1913 to deter interracial couples from going there to marry because they couldn't wed back home.

Significantly, New York is on the western borders of Massachusetts and Connecticut and is a neighbor of Canada, where gay couples have wed since 2003.

While New York doesn't yet allow gay couples to marry there, Gov. David Paterson has ordered state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Rhode Island, Connecticut's neighbor to the east, tends to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere.

It's important to remember that the Northeast is one big mixing bowl, sometimes called a megalopolis. It's not uncommon for someone to be born in, say, New Hampshire, go to school in Massachusetts, have siblings in New Jersey and Vermont, settle down in New York but work in Connecticut and own a vacation cottage in Maine.

That partly explains how in the eight short years since Vermont created civil unions -- a sort of marriage-lite for gay couples -- nearly all of the region's other states have taken major steps to protect their own coupled gay residents.

In addition to Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire have civil unions. Maine, meanwhile, offers limited partner rights.

The next marriage-celebration fireworks will likely be set off in New Jersey and New York, and then Vermont.

The New York Assembly passed marriage equality legislation last year. Gov. Paterson wants to sign it into law. But first it must clear the state Senate, where activists hope a Democratic takeover would produce positive action.

Meanwhile in New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine has said he would sign a gay marriage bill if the Legislature would wait until after the November elections. That measure might land on his desk as early as next year.

"The debate in New Jersey isn't whether we'll have marriage equality, but when," said Garden State Equality chair Steven Goldstein. "And the Connecticut decision will be massively persuasive in New Jersey."

Vermont and New Hampshire would likely move next, possibly by 2011, with Maine, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania riding in the region's marriage equality caboose.

Of course, the approaching election is a reminder of the bigger U.S. map. Voters in California, Arizona and Florida will decide whether to write gay marriage bans into their state constitutions.

The California referendum is hugely important: Gay couples are already marrying there. For the first time, voters will decide whether to take away marriage rights.

Coloring all 50 states lavender is a decades-long challenge. The Northeast is showing how to do it.


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Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.