The change-of-heart about same-sex marriage that changed everything
As more and more states embrace marriage equality, a look back at one personal struggle.
This story is featured in the Nov. 16 issue of the Magazine.
In June 2007, the Massachusetts Legislature would be voting for one last time on a constitutional amendment that would take away marriage for gay couples. Marriage equality advocates needed nine lawmakers to change their votes to defeat it, and in the weeks prior to the vote, we were pulling out every stop.
One of the two Republican lawmakers on our target list was a representative named Richard Ross. He was the only lawmaker in the Legislature who’d voted our way and then reversed and voted against us. His wife was extremely religious — a Southern Baptist who’d gone to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University — so voting our way had created difficulties in his domestic life. But Ross made it a practice to seek out different opinions and draw his own conclusions, even if that meant bucking his party or discovering new information that might lead him to change his mind.
Ross owned a funeral home in Wrentham, one of the more Republican parts of the state. In January, he’d gone over to the Parish of St. Mary, the Catholic church across the street, to meet with the local branch of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization, and talk about the issue. “Now that they’re getting married,” Ross asked the group, “what’s changed?” Nobody could point to anything concrete. The best they could do was to argue about where this was all going and make what to Ross were outrageous claims about polygamy and bestiality.
Our MassEquality organizer made sure that Ross would have access to opposing views and arranged for same-sex couples and families from the district to meet with him. He was especially moved by a veterinarian and her wife from Medfield, as well as a lesbian couple and their children living in Plainville who had invited Ross over to their home. He also met some kids with gay parents who attended King Philip Regional Middle School with his own children.
At home, he’d share his experiences and his thought processes with his family, particularly his wife and his high school-age daughter: “This is a much deeper issue than I’ve had any idea about. I’m having trouble reconciling this in my mind.” His wife couldn’t believe it. “How can you do this as a Christian?” she’d ask, as he thought out loud about voting against the amendment. The arguments raged around the dinner table.
On June 12, two days out from the vote, Ross could still feel some wrestling going on inside, but he’d settled on his position. He knew being consistent with his last vote was a comfortable place to be for many reasons. He headed to the State House for some meetings, including a get-together with Patrick Guerriero, a gay former Republican state representative who had been meeting with legislators.
This afternoon was Guerriero’s final meeting with Ross to try to get him over whatever obstacles stood in the way of voting against the amendment. Guerriero listened carefully to Ross and recognized he was still conflicted about the issue. “I have watched you go through this process and be so thoughtful,” Guerriero told him. “I know where you need to end up, and not for us, but for you.”
But Ross seemed to have his mind made up. After a good amount of additional back and forth, Guerriero still didn’t see the path to getting Ross to a no vote. As he got up to leave, he inquired about the kind of clients Ross served in his funeral home business.
The question triggered something deep inside Ross. He remembered the summer day in 1976 just a few weeks before his father passed away from heart disease. Ross, who’d been studying at American University to become a diplomat, dropped out and came home to help his father with the funeral business. Soon, Ross would be taking over, and his father wanted to impart some advice.
“I want to tell you certain things about people, son, that will make your life a whole lot easier,” Ross’s father said. “Folks from all walks of life are going to ring that doorbell. Do yourself a favor. When you open that door, don’t look them up and down and judge them by what you think you see. You look them in the eye and you find one thing about their character or their makeup that you like about them, and you build a relationship around that. And I promise you this: Nobody will ever leave your life as an adversary.”
Ross started to sob uncontrollably at the memory. Guerriero asked what was wrong. “I can’t believe I’m about to treat people in one day job differently than I treat them in another day job,” he responded.
Ross packed up his belongings and headed back to Wrentham to reflect. He entered the parlor room of his funeral home, where portraits of his parents hung prominently. In good times and in dark times, he found their presence comforting. It felt as if the image of his dad lifted right off the canvas and he was still standing right there.
After awhile, Ross turned and looked at the portrait of his three children on the wall behind him. As he sat and reflected, it became clear that he needed to vote against the amendment, no matter what, even if it cost him his job, which he thought it would. He knew he’d be letting down some of his constituents, those who had entrusted him to carry their message. They’d feel betrayed. But he knew what he needed to do.
On the morning of the vote, Ross continued to feel, at his very core, that his parents were with him. As he grappled with his decision, what came to mind was a quote from Hamlet that his mother loved: “To thine own self be true.”
Senate President Therese Murray gaveled the joint session of the Legislature to order.
To prevail, backers of the amendment needed a total of 50 votes between the two houses. The Senate voted first — the tally there was 5 yes, 34 no. Next was the House. Of the 160 House members, we needed to hold the opponents below 45 yes votes.
When it was his turn, Ross voted no. He felt as if his was the deciding vote and knew he was doing the right thing. He was also sure that this would mark the end of his career. (It didn’t; he was elected to the state Senate, then reelected earlier this month.)
Outside the chamber, we watched carefully as the board filled quickly: 40 yes, 117 no. We’d won! Murray immediately announced the final, combined vote: 45 to 151, in the negative. “The amendment fails,” she said.