Public Decisions, Personal Crisis

By Marian Walsh

In November 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts found that gay residents of the commonwealth had always had, under its constitution, the right to marry, but that their ability to exercise that right would be delayed for six months, until cities and towns got the paperwork—the necessary civil documents—in order.

When the Supreme Judicial Court had decided to hear this case—and it did not have to—my blood pressure went up, because as a lawyer, and Massachusetts state senator, I knew potentially what could happen. And it did happen.

My district is southwest Boston, and stretches to towns in Norfolk County as well. To give you the flavor of my situation: Cardinal Bernard Law and his mother had a home three houses up the street from the West Roxbury home I grew up in and later bought. In addition, my pastor became executive secretary for Cardinal Law. My father was a physician, and had taken care of many in the Roman Catholic religious orders, for love and for service.

I enjoyed a close personal relationship with the chancery, one of great affection and respect. I am pro-life; I am against the death penalty; and I am very much concerned about social and economic justice. After the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision, the matter before me—in a constitutional convention, in February 2004—was: Do I vote to change the oldest existing constitution in the history of the world?

I had been through many tough experiences politically. I was the first woman to hold many of my positions in the Massachusetts Legislature. I was the first person from my district to vote against the death penalty. I had been in the doghouse a lot. And I had tried to compensate for the dog-house by offering very good constituent services, and being physically visible at as many events as possible—in hopes that it’s hard to shoot someone you know.

At any rate, I examined what I had been taught. I had been taught both by my religious tradition and by my family that homosexuality was a sin. Theologically, it was a lack of complementarity—it was a mirror image, it was self-worship. I was taught that you should love the homosexual and protest the homosexuality.

When I examined each of these premises, I got very anxious. I began to realize that homosexuality is morally neutral—that it’s biologically based, with absolutely no moral component to it. After meeting with hundreds and hundreds of people, after meeting with clergy of many denominations, after meeting with reporters, after hearing often from my family and my biggest supporters, I realized that I could not vote to change the constitution. I realized that my understanding of homosexuality had lacked both information and knowledge. And it lacked the Holy Spirit.

I realized that I could never take away a constitutional right from anyone. I thought of my dad, who fought for three and a half years in New Guinea; I thought of my brothers, who served. I thought of my neighbors in Iraq now. What are they fighting for? The truth and dignity of each person.

I called my staff in, because I had to prepare them. (We were getting calls 80 to 20 against what was now my position.) I said, “Well, I’m going to be in the dog-house again, because I’m not going to vote to change the constitution.” Half of my staff clapped, and half were horrified. They represented a complete prototype of our American society.

After my decision became public, it was a very difficult time, at my office and at home. There were threats; the state police had to come on occasion. I felt like a Martian in my own neighborhood, in my own religion. But I felt very comfortable that I was in the right place morally and spiritually, and I felt like this would be enough for me, and would carry me politically.

I have learned that, in governing and as a religious believer, it all comes down to one’s personal integrity. And that, coupled with prayer, what will assist most in assuring civil and religious integrity is understanding. I have some relationships that are severed for life; I also have great joy, and great appreciation for this country, for its Constitution, and for how important it is to engage in true political conversation.

Massachusetts State Senator Marian Walsh received a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1982. This article is adapted from a presentation she gave as part of the panel “Governing in a Religiously Plural Nation,” on the School’s Alumni/ae Day,  June 8, 2005.

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