Can we talk? Conversation opened door to marriage vows

Before 6 a.m. on Saturday, I found myself on the cold, dark front steps of Bangor City Hall, banging on the doors. Next to me were several women who had tried to open them and found them locked. Together we got attention from someone inside who was there to participate in or witness this historic day.

Weddings always make me tear up (at least), as I see the couple look into each other’s eyes. When I took my own marriage vows nearly 25 years ago, all the tension around wedding plans melted away, and it felt like it was just my beloved and I standing there, tying together our fates.

And while I did not know anyone who married last Saturday, I could sense that their feelings were like mine on my wedding day. They gleamed.

One couple included some of the women who had stood with me on the steps outside before we got help opening the door that took them to the city clerk’s window. Together more than a decade, their mothers beside them, they held hands as they were pronounced “wife and wife.”

Also there were two men, together for 21 years, both with beards, jeans and black and white flannel shirts. After a Bangor High School student sang “Over the Rainbow,” these men stood with smiles and evident love and were legally wed.

Marriage equality has come to Maine, as loving gay and lesbian couples can now marry. It’s been clear that this day would arrive eventually simply because young people are so much more supportive than older folks.

Ending Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell military policy also mattered. As the publication Stars and Stripes recently reported, “After the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law was formally repealed in 2011, critics predicted irreversible damage to the military, division and distrust among units and a mass exodus of chaplains and conservative servicemembers. None of that happened.” When feverish predictions fail, and more people saw gay men and lesbians in military service, attitudes shifted.

This was a door unlocked by years of effort by many people. It took years to get here, even decades. Straight and gay people worked to make change.

In Maine in 2009, it was no small political risk for the Maine Legislature to pass and Gov. John Baldacci to sign a marriage bill, later overturned at the polls. Back then, Gallup found only 40 percent support for marriage equality nationally, compared to 53 percent now.

When the decision was made to take the bold step of putting a referendum on the ballot for marriage equality, something never done before in any state, there were skeptics among the goal’s supporters. How much change could occur in three years?

It turned out to be a remarkable campaign, a model that will be emulated in other marriage equality efforts, and one that holds out hope for our democratic processes.

What happened in Maine was, in essence, so very simple and so powerful. People talked to people one-to-one, sharing insights from their own relationships. In doing so, they connected with their fellow citizens, hearing why they believed what they believed and how they felt about the gay and lesbian people they knew. Reflecting on a lesbian niece or a gay co-worker, sometimes people, talking on the doorsteps or in their living rooms, changed their minds.

So much of our politics involves what’s wrong. We hear of problems, of what’s bad about candidates.

And so much of our politics involves pushing people into ideological boxes. Recently someone told me liberals don’t believe in competition and don’t support giving trophies to the best. Another claimed Democrats want Soviet Marxism, a system in which the government runs all production and there is no private enterprise. How absurd, as if the only people who own and invest in businesses, compete, coach, cheer and give out awards are conservative Republicans.

I’m no Polyanna, and I know politics ain’t beanbag, but it seems to me that this sort of polarization and misunderstanding of our fellow citizens just isn’t necessary.

After all, Mainers just had honest, authentic and respectful conversations. That listening and talking opened the door to the happiness of married life for our gay and lesbian neighbors.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.