Bishop Robinson reflects on marriage equality in New Hampshire

Bishop Gene Robinson has shared with us an email he sent to friends on Thursday after spending the previous day lobbying the New Hampshire legislature on behalf of marriage equality legislation.

Finally home after an exhausting, exhilarating day! Too much to tell in detail, but here are a few snapshots:

10:30 – addressing a marriage equality rally in front of the State House, full of energy, excitement and anxiety about what will happen; of course, I meet lots of wonderful people, including an older gay couple, one of whom is severely disabled, in a wheelchair, who offers me his withered hand and thanks me for what I’ve been doing; nevermind the 37 years of working at a relationship with his partner (close at hand and rubbing his partner’s shoulder), forging a lasting relationship against all odds and opposition, from the State to the Church, nearly in tears at the possibility that marriage equality might become a reality later today; young people who weren’t even alive in 1990; parents of lgbt kids.

11:15 – the NH State Senate (the only legislative body in America with a majority of female members!) votes 14-10 for marriage equality, sending it on to the House

12:00 – lunch break, and another visit to the outdoor rally crowd, who’ve kept singing, chanting and shouting their encouragement to the legislature inside, becoming an audio background to the deliberations.

1:05 – the House reconvenes with SEVEN bills to take up before consideration of the marriage equality bill; the waiting is excruciating; Freedom to Marry staff (along with helpers from GLAD, HRC and others) are still counting heads (who is in the room, who is missing, and what are their votes?!)

1:30 – Ray Buckley, gay (yes, openly gay) Chair of the NH Democratic Party, and Mo Baxley, Director of the NH Freedom to Marry Coalition, tell me to sit down in my seat; why? because a young man who looks all of 18, but might be 21, is standing by the entrance to the House gallery, with a holstered gun and holstered Bowie knife attached to his belt. Yes, the NH Statehouse is the only state capital in America which has not outlawed firearms — it is perfectly legal in NH to watch an explosive and contentious debate in the legislature, from the gallery, while packing heat! They are worried for my safety. Once when I leave to go to the bathroom, Mo (a tiny, petite little lesbian with more guts than any man I’ve ever met, and who has masterminded this entire campaign with strong leadership, brilliant strategic organizing, and an iron will that won’t quit) precedes me as I exit, to plant herself in front of this armed young man, literally standing between him and me and blocking any possibility of him having at me. I am nearly moved to tears.

3:45 – House Bill 73 finally comes to the floor of the House, the air is electric with excitement and anxiety; the arguments against the bill are flimsy and poorly articulated and ineffective against the testimony of one African-American, football-tackle-built legislator from Keene who tells how he moved on from his abuse in his youth by an older man to embracing the notion of marriage equality, and the openly gay legislator who talks about what his and his partner’s adopted children had said to him before he left this morning. And then the vote. The longest 30 seconds I’ve ever experienced, while the legislators (over 450 of them!) push their red or green buttons, each vote to be individually recorded as a roll call vote and undoubtedly used against them in their next campaigns.

4:15 – The vote is flashed up on the tote board — 198 FOR marriage equality, 176 AGAINST. The place goes berzerk! The gallery — which is close to HALF made up of young people under the age of 25 — is uncontrollable. The Speaker of the House, also a woman, doesn’t even try to stop it. I am reminded of Jesus saying that “even the rocks will shout.” An impossibly exquisite moment. After so much work, so much strategizing, so much paying attention to every detail, it is done. Done! Because the governor had already pledged to sign the bill if it included the language he proposed about protecting religious bodies’ right NOT to participate in gay weddings if it violated their beliefs.

4:30 – A joyous celebration outside with the rallying folks. Tears of joy everywhere. The disabled man in the wheelchair weeping openly. Moms and Dads calling their gay kids on their cellphones just to let them hear the jubilation. Mo and I speak to the crowd and to the press/media. Then word comes that the Governor is going to sign the bill at 5:15 in the Executive Council chamber. We all make our way there, the House and Senate leadership (ALL of them!), activists in both houses, activists who had been working on this campaign night and day, ordinary citizens who wanted to see history in the making. And then, again, we wait.

5:20 – The Governor emerges from his office to tumultuous cheering. This is the Governor who had misgivings — not about the rightness of the bill, but about the fact that he felt he had promised the voters that if they supported civil unions, “it would go no further.” He delivers one of the greatest speeches of his lifetime, which goes far beyond anything he is required to say. He says that marriage equality is not just about fairness in taxation, rights, benefits, and the like, but about RESPECT. Respect for gay and lesbian people and their families. Most families, he says, will get up and go to work tomorrow, not noticing much of a change. But SOME families, he says, will get up and go to work knowing that they are equal in the eyes of their government, and that there is no describing the difference it will make to THEM.

He says that this bill represents the best of the American tradition: equality under the law and affirmation of the separation between church and state. Protecting all our citizens with equal rights, and protecting the freedom of religion.

And then, he knocks me off my feet by going on to add that this should send a message to Washington — that it is time for the Federal Government to give to all lgbt people and families what NH has given them today. A wake up call from New Hampshire to our national government, he calls it. This timid, careful and popular governor using his office to stand up for all of us. Live free or die, indeed! And then he puts his signature where his mouth is, and signs the bill.

On January 1, 2010, marriage equality becomes the law in New Hampshire.

No matter how much you think about it, hope for it and work toward it, there is nothing like the reality of it. You know it’s true, but you still can’t BELIEVE it’s true. A done deal. No more weekly strategizing meetings. No more counting heads. No more calls to the homes of individual legislators. No more begging or bullying. Just the reality that in New Hampshire — this conservative, curmudgeonly, libertarian, fiercely independent, rural, backwater state — marriage equality is now a reality.

An exhausting and exhilarating day! I think God must be smiling. I, for one, can’t wipe the smile off my face or remove the song in my heart. I left all the partying to come home to my soon-to-be husband. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?

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