Eye on Equality: Living Free in New England

By Kerry Lobel

The civil rights sweep of New England is now complete. All six New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont) will soon ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Add Hawaii, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia to the mix, and nearly one out of four people in the country live where discrimination based on sexual orientation is outlawed.

While extremists threaten to challenge Maine's civil rights law, remember it was only two years ago that Mainers out-organized the Right and defeated a vicious initiative that would have written gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals out of that state's constitution. New Hampshire not only passed its civil rights bill this year, but trounced a hostile anti-marriage bill that would have banned recognition of marriages performed in other states as well. Rhode Island activists defeated a same-gender marriage ban. Hate crimes bills were introduced in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, strong efforts are underway to repeal the states' sodomy laws. Massachusetts is in a strong position to enact statewide domestic partner legislation, and Vermont can already boast of this accomplishment. Vermont has enacted more pro-gay legislation than any other state in the nation, leading Vermonters to say that theirs is the safest state in the country.

Sure, Northhampton, Massachusetts remains the undisputed lesbian capital of the United States and Provincetown is our community's summer resort. And yes, the region is peppered with colleges and universities that are vibrant centers of youth organizing. But by no means was the work of New Englanders easy or complete. Connecticut and Rhode Island have hate crimes laws that do not include sexual orientation. Massachusetts and Rhode Island still ban opposite and same-sex sodomy. Maine and New Hampshire ban same-gender marriage and these bans are still pending in legislatures in Connecticut and Vermont. New Hampshire bans adoption and foster care by gay men and lesbians. Legislatively, the region has miles to go on issues related to our families and our relationships.

My colleague Sue Hyde is the NGLTF Field Organizer for New England. She says that New England, the cradle of the American Revolution, is also the cradle of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender revolution. I think that New Hampshire's motto "Live Free or Die" has helped frame the picture.

But the truth is, our New England sisters and brothers have a long history of organizing and all of us should pay attention. Look no further than the feat of activists in New Hampshire getting the Catholic Diocese of Manchester to support civil rights for gays. And they've taught us, we must be prepared to organize on a number of fronts at once. As we beat back the same-gender marriage bans or ballot measures (even if we've lost a fight already), we must keep our eyes on the prize. We can move forward comprehensive civil rights bills, repeal sodomy bans, pass hate crimes laws and build our communities at the same time.

Each step provides important momentum in moving our communities forward to a place where there is freedom, dignity, and social justice for all. Gains in civil equality are an integral piece of a larger picture of full cultural acceptance and appreciation of diversity for all people.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is a progressive organization that has supported grassroots organizing and pioneered in national advocacy since 1973. Since its inception, NGLTF has been at the forefront of virtually every major initiative for lesbian and gay rights. In all its efforts, NGLTF helps to strengthen the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement at the state level while connecting these activities to a national vision for change.
Eye on Equality is a new monthly column that will discuss or give commentary on national and state-level political events or provide a behind-the-scenes look at social movements and trends. The column is written by Kerry Lobel, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

©1997 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.