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Boston’s reputation as a haven of liberalism rivals San Francisco’s, so it’s little surprise that the two cities now bookend the nation on the issue of same-sex marriage. But while change in San Francisco arrived with a top-down order from the mayor, Massachusetts has witnessed a grassroots litigation effort, with the government playing catch-up. Gay rights advocates spent years preparing to sue the Department of Public Health, which enforces laws regulating marriage licenses, for the right to marry. Last November their patience was rewarded when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that barring same-sex couples from marriage violates the Massachusetts Constitution. The court ordered the department to begin issuing such marriage licenses in six months. As a result, while San Francisco was the first city to issue such licenses, on May 17 Massachusetts became the first state to sanction them. In the first years after Mary Bonauto joined Boston’s Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders legal team in 1990, she advised couples seeking marriage to wait until the social, legal and political climates were more hospitable. But over the next decade, setbacks — particularly the Hawaii Supreme Court’s 1999 decision denying same-sex licenses and the passage of state and federal defense of marriage acts — prompted GLAD to pursue a more aggressive strategy. Bonauto believed public opinion would be as important to achieving victory as the courts and government. So Bonauto spent more than half a year screening couples to find the perfect ones to personify the issue. Was the couple stable enough to handle the media’s scrutiny? Were child-care arrangements flexible? How would their homes look on the evening news? Bonauto also sought diversity: racial, economic, but most of all geographic — so the group wouldn’t appear to be merely a bunch of Boston activists. In short, she says she wanted “people who had been living their lives the best they could, working, paying their taxes, weren’t necessarily known [as activists] in their communities. People from different parts of the state to appeal as neighbors.” By early 2001, Bonauto had selected seven couples to apply for marriage licenses throughout the state. They were all denied. That April, they sued the Public Health Department. Thirteen months later, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Thomas Connolly rejected their claims, saying procreation is marriage’s raison d’etre, a rationale rejected the next year when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that denying marriage to same-sex couples violates the state constitution. Opponents grudgingly acknowledge the success of Bonauto’s strategy. Dwight Duncan, an assistant professor at the Southern New England School of Law, filed an amicus brief for the Massachusetts Family Institute in support of the state. He says Bonauto’s efforts created a “Potemkin village-type of show” to fool people into believing same-sex couples could be good parents, for example. Bonauto, a lesbian who gave birth to twin daughters in 2001, admits those arguments hurt her feelings, but added it was nothing she hadn’t heard before. Bonauto, who moved to Maine to join her partner when their daughters were born, won’t be able to benefit herself from her years of hard work. Gov. Mitt Romney says he won’t issue licenses to couples from states that wouldn’t marry them. In 1997 Maine became one of 38 states to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.

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