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Sodom After Democracy

Twenty years after gay marriage was forced on the American people, there are lessons to be learned.

Cambridge City Hall, where the first legal same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, and in the United States, were performed on May 17, 2004. Credit: Beyond My Ken

On May 17, 2004, Boston PD snipers sat perched over Arlington Street Church, the quasi–mother church of Unitarian Universalism. Behind the imposing neoclassical facade, David Wilson and Robert Compton thought they were marrying each other, and neither man nor God would be permitted to tell them otherwise. They had snipers to deal with the one, Unitarian Universalism the other.

It was the first gay “wedding” anywhere in the United States, just hours after the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began granting marriage licenses to members of the same sex. The watchful snipers, now forgotten, are a striking image of the lethal force that underwrote this particular bit of progress.


The decisive moment had come months before—twenty years ago today, November 18, 2003, when the Supreme Judicial Court discovered a right to gay marriage written with invisible ink in the Massachusetts Constitution. Mr. Wilson, then 60, and Mr. Compton, 54, were among fourteen homosexuals who had sued the Department of Public Health over their inability to obtain marriage licenses, which up to that point had been reserved for the exclusive purpose of licensing marriages.

Twenty years and one day ago, there was not a single state in the Union that considered it proper—or possible—for one man to be married to another. In Massachusetts itself, the General Court—the legislative body elected by the people to express and enforce their interests by means of law—had just rejected the idea a few months prior. Vermont had invented something called a “civil union” in 2000, meant to bestow the privileges of marriage (and so quell complaints about second-class citizenship) without conceding the delusion that marriage was anything other than the sacred union between one man and one woman for the sake of procreation. (The compromise, shockingly, did not hold.) 

How very much the world has changed. In every state now, not a generation later, gays have the privileges of marriage ten times over. The unfolding of history has given the lie to the argument of certain conservative pragmatists, who hoped that the extension of marriage rights might domesticate the wilder homosexuals. Sure, there are fashionable neighborhoods where same-sex couples keep tidy houses, tiny dogs, and designer babies; the decor is very tasteful. There are also open-air sexfests every June, where victims of all ages are subjected to the sights and smells of deviants in dog masks and leather thongs and very little else. There is an epidemic of transgenderism and other sexual confusions sweeping across the grade schools of America. “Throuple” is now a fixture of the American lexicon, and various forms of non-monogamy are stumbling into fashion. In 2020, mere months after churches were shuttered to delay transmission of Fauci’s Chinese cough, the suggestion that orgies should be postponed for fear of the definitely-not-an-STD monkeypox was treated as a human rights violation. (The disease dropped out of headlines around the time reports arose of cases in children and animals.) 

This is not just unpleasant; it is a broken promise. In the majority opinion of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall assured the citizens who had just shot down the proposal by democratic means:

Here, the plaintiffs seek only to be married, not to undermine the institution of civil marriage. They do not want marriage abolished. They do not attack the binary nature of marriage, the consanguinity provisions, or any of the other gate-keeping provisions of the marriage licensing law. Recognizing the right of an individual to marry a person of the same sex will not diminish the validity or dignity of opposite-sex marriage, any more than recognizing the right of an individual to marry a person of a different race devalues the marriage of a person who marries someone of her own race. If anything, extending civil marriage to same-sex couples reinforces the importance of marriage to individuals and communities. That same-sex couples are willing to embrace marriage's solemn obligations of exclusivity, mutual support, and commitment to one another is a testament to the enduring place of marriage in our laws and in the human spirit.


How could Mitchell—an erstwhile anti-apartheid activist who left South Africa in search of easy liberalism—have been so obscenely, hilariously wrong? One has to wonder whether it could ever have been otherwise—that is, whether it was ever possible for gays to “embrace” marriage, including not just its obligations of exclusivity but its whole character and purpose. As Mitchell put it in 2003, the question at issue was “whether, consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth may deny the protections, benefits, and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry.”

That was never the question, though. The particular question was whether the state could confer those protections, benefits, and obligations, and the answer was no. The broader question is whether positive law can rightly contravene natural law. (Again, the answer is no.) Marriage is a real thing that exists, just as sex is a real thing that exists; it cannot become something else by the mere edict of the state. 

Conservatives and other sensible people argued these points valiantly, but widespread opposition could not halt the wild career of the rainbow juggernaut. Why?

David Wilson and Robert Compton were armed with more than an unchained libido and a quaint sense of moral rectitude. Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health was coordinated at every step of the way by GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders), a legal activist group founded to defend a hundred men arrested for sexual deviance in the bathroom of the Boston Public Library in 1978. (Talk about a tight squeeze.) The left-wing activist Mitchell was appointed to the court by liberal GOP governor Bill Weld. She and three other judges, by a one-vote majority, rendered GLAD and its fourteen plaintiffs the requested privileges against the will of the people expressed through their representatives just a few short weeks before. Once that had been done, Robert Travaglini, the Catholic president of the Senate, lamely gave way to the “wish of the court,” forgoing even the kind of compromise Vermont had settled on. Six months later, snipers would ensure the “wish of the court” bore fruit; twenty years later, the rot is astonishing.

Despair is easy amid such spoilage, but the lesson of Goodridge is clear. A shrewd and determined political machine sowed chaos with only the tiniest sliver of popular support. The restoration of order will come (if it comes at all) in much the same way.