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By Sarah Boslaugh
October 16, 2008

Seldom has a film been more aptly titled than Saving Marriage, a new documentary by Mike Roth and John Henning which traces the political course of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts from November 2003 through June 2007. The film presents a diversity of voices, both for and against same-sex marriage, and makes one point crystal clear: people on both sides of this issue believe they are, in fact, saving marriage.  

No wonder tempers run high. On the one hand the film includes people such as Mitt Romney (governor of Massachusetts, 2003-2007) who states his belief that “marriage is a special institution between a man and a woman” and Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute, who says he believes that “Same sex marriage degrades the value of my marriage. It says to me that my uniqueness as a man, as a father and as a husband is irrelevant.” For both men, traditional marriage is part of their identity as well as a fundamental institution which they feel is crucial to American civil society. 

On the other hand, Saving Marriage interviews many gay and lesbian people who feel they are denied both the legal protections and the cultural significance of marriage, for no reason other than prejudice against their sexual preference. The cultural significance is not to be minimized: as activist Amy Hunt puts it, you grow up seeing your relatives and friends get married and it’s the most important day of their life, and then you realize that “you can’t have the most important day in your life” because the law doesn’t recognize your relationship with your partner. Neither are the legal protections: one gay man interviewed for the film relates a terrifying experience in which his child (co-parented with his male partner) was seriously ill and when he tried to learn more about the child’s condition a nurse seemed mainly interested in interrogating him about his relationship to the child (which did not fit into any legally-recognized category).  

Saving Marriage presents its story chronologically, alternating between the progress of same-sex marriage through the courts and legislature and personal stories of how members of the gay and lesbian community were changed by the court’s decision. The story begins on November 18, 2003, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry was unconstitutional. Governor Mitt Romney ordered that marriage licenses be issued to same-sex couples beginning May 17, 2004, and gay and lesbian couples all over the state began shopping for rings and planning their vows. Lest anyone doubt the eagerness of gay and lesbian couples to marry, on the night of May 16, many couples lined up at Boston City Hall so they could apply for a marriage license immediately after midnight. Roth and Henning are there with their cameras, documenting the happy couples applying for their marriage licenses, and some of the subsequent marriages as well. 

However, those opposing gay marriage also launched into action “about one nanosecond” after the Supreme Court decision, according to one of the lesbian activists interviewed in Saving Marriage. The opposition was successful in communicating their displeasure to the state legislature, which in March 2004 voted to allow the public the right to vote on a constitutional amendment which would override the Supreme Court decision and ban same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. This effort was often couched in phrases such as “let the people decide” although, as one of the gay activists points out, matters of civil rights are not customarily left up to a popular decision. What if some of “the people” wanted to ban people of different races from marrying: would that be an appropriate matter to place on a general election ballot? And if it passed, would such marriages be banned? 

Nothing is simple in American politics, and one of the best features of Saving Marriage is the way it maintains focus and a sense of chronology while also relating the complexities of the legal status of same-sex marriage: it was not just won once, but won, threatened, saved, threatened, and saved again. Conveying this complexity is crucial because few things are as exasperating to an outsider as the American political system, which at times seems to have been devised by Rube Goldberg for the purpose of discouraging the uninitiated from even trying to understand the process. And in the gay and lesbian community, politics hasn’t always been considered the coolest way to spend your time: as gay activist Josh Friedes puts it, as a gay man he expected to spend his time “looking for Mr. Right instead of fighting for the right to marry Mr. Right.”  

In the Massachusetts case the somewhat involved legal process required to get a amendment constitutional on the general election ballot worked to the advantage of the gay and lesbian community, because it gave them time to get organized and present their opposition to the opposition, so to speak. Before being presented for popular vote, the amendment to ban same-sex marriage had to be approved by the legislature a second time, in late 2005. Before that legislative session commenced, the entire legislature had to stand for re-election. This offered those in favor of same-sex marriage a new path to pursue: running their own candidates for state legislature in districts where the incumbent had previously voted for placing the amendment on the ballot. Gaining a few seats could swing the second vote, because in the initial vote it passed with a margin of only 5 votes. 

Saving Marriage closely follows the campaign of Carl Sciortino, a gay man and political novice, as an example of the new gay and lesbian involvement in state politics. Sciortino ran for the seat of anti-same-sex-marriage incumbent Vinnie Ciampa in the state legislature district representing Medford and Somerville, both blue-collar, traditional neighborhoods. The filmmakers follow the candidate and his team as they engage in politics at its most local: canvassing door to door, making innumerable phone calls, and basically sweating every vote in a very close election. When Sciortino wins the Democratic primary he believes the election is basically over: the district is so solidly Democratic that customarily no one bothers to run as a Republican. Then Ciampa decides to mount a write-in campaign, mailing stickers with his name to every voter in the district, along with a pamphlet titled “A Special Report on the Homosexual Lobby’s Secret Campaign to Install a Homosexual, Anti-Catholic Extremist in the State Legislature.” But Ciampa’s campaign fails and Sciortino is victorious in the general election as well, winning almost 2/3 of the vote.  

The ugliness of the Ciampa’s campaign is mirrored in many races across the state, as personal attacks and anti-gay smears are used to incite the presumed prejudices of voters. Demonstrators carry placards with slogans like “Sodomy: It’s to Die For” and chant “It just isn’t natural,” One Ciampa supporter says directly to the camera that he just doesn’t like dykes and fags. This type of response lends strength to Amy Hunt’s assertion: “They don’t object to gay marriage. They object to gay human beings.” 

Some in the opposition voice technical objections to same-sex marriage. For instance Tom Dreher says he has no problem with gay people receiving the same benefits as straight people, but feels the word “marriage” should be reserved for opposite-sex couples. I’m not sure what the logic behind that statement is, and it’s a short-coming of Saving Marriage that people simply make statements and the film moves on, with no further exploration of what is behind the statement. I wonder what Mr. Dreher would think of expressions such as “marrying the spices” in cooking, or “The Marriage of the Waters,” a celebration marking the completion of the Erie Canal which involved pouring a bucket of water from Lake Erie into the ocean at New York harbor. If that’s not a sexual image, I don’t know what is, although perhaps it would be acceptable to Mr. Dreher if you claim it represents an opposite sex with Lake Erie playing the male role and New York harbor the female. Or the marriage ceremony between the city of Venice and the sea, once performed annually by the Doge of Venice: lest anyone doubt what was meant by “marriage,” the ceremony included a wedding ring which was cast into the sea. If you can figure out who is the boy and who is the girl in that relationship, you are way ahead of me. 

For that matter, I’ve never grasped why some people find the idea of extending marriage to same-sex couples to be so either revolutionary or threatening. I’ve heard the opinions stated in Saving Marriage before, but since none are explored in further depth, I’m no wiser than on this score than when I began. But I can’t really fault Roth and Henning on this score: the focus of their film is more on documenting the political process in Massachusetts than in exploring philosophical points of view, which will have to wait for some other movie. 

Saving Marriage spends more time presenting the gay and lesbian, pro-same-sex-marriage point of view than that of the opposition. This is reasonable because the Supreme Court granted gay and lesbian people a new right which profoundly affected many of their lives, while nothing changed for supporters of conventional marriage other than perhaps the need to deal with the psychological trauma of realizing that your beliefs are not universally held. But the filmmakers grant both sides the dignity of their beliefs. Mineau is the primary spokesperson for the opposition, and he comes off as a thoughtful individual who holds deep beliefs which are threatened by the court decision: he says when he got the news “It was to me as traumatic a moment as the day that Robert Kennedy was assassinated.” But he also is clear about the source of his opposition, which is not based on any technicality or use of the term marriage: in his opinion, gays want the right to marry because they “want affirmation that their lifestyle is normative and good and proper” and according to him, it’s not and never will be.  

The second legislative vote in September 2005 was a resounding defeat (157-39) for the move to let the constitutional amendment go to a popular vote, so same-sex couples retained the right to marry in Massachusetts. But the story was not over: an organization called VoteOnMarriage.Org gathered sufficient petitions to require the amendment to go to popular vote if 50 legislators approved it in the current and subsequent legislative sessions. The measure received sufficient votes to pass in January 2007 (the current session), but not in June 2007 (the subsequent session) so the right of same-sex couples to marry was again confirmed, at least temporarily.  

Saving Marriage ends at this point, which provides an upbeat ending but also a sense of just how precarious the right to marriage is for same-sex couples. After all, there’s nothing to prevent the opposition from starting the whole process again, although Roth and Henning leave the impression that over the last four years the gay and lesbian community has become firmly entrenched in the political process and will be able to defend their rights. They also leave you with the impression that the tide may be turning and those who oppose same-sex marriage will soon start to feel as quaint (and bigoted) as those who once sought to outlaw marriage between people of different races. And here’s a historical note: not until 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, did the United States Supreme Court rule that state anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.


Saving Marriage

Here! Films/Regent Releasing

Directed by Mike Roth and John Henning

Color, 2008, 86 Minutes

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