Ten years after marriage equality

Jeanine Merrill gets a kiss from her dog, Betty, as her wife, Lisa, watches in their kitchen earlier this month. The Concord couple will celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in August.

It was March 26, 2009, and the New Hampshire House had just failed to legalize same-sex marriage by the narrowest of margins: a single vote.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Jim Splaine, a Portsmouth Democrat, went to work, talking to House colleagues and asking others to do the same. And when the House reconsidered the bill later that day, the measure passed, 186 to 179.

A month later, the state Senate also passed the bill, 13 to 11. And after meeting with folks on both sides for weeks, then-Gov. John Lynch changed his mind and signed it into law on June 3, 2009.

Splaine was standing behind the governor that day; he was thinking, he said later, of the man he would have married, his partner of 10 years who had died in a car crash in 1994.

New Hampshire passed marriage equality “the right way,” Splaine said last week; this was the first state to adopt it through the legislative process, not a court order. “We did it with the representatives of the people, after public hearings that were very well-attended,” he said.

In the decade since, more than 4,600 same-sex couples — 3,200 female couples and 1,451 male couples — have tied the knot in New Hampshire, according to the state Division of Vital Records Administration.

And about 600 of them have gotten divorced.

Marriage equality came to New Hampshire earlier than most places. But it wasn’t an easy change.

The issue divided families, friends, co-workers and church congregations. The Roman Catholic bishop sent a letter opposing the measure; the Episcopal bishop, who was openly gay, testified in favor.

Former state Rep. David Bates of Windham was one of the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage here. He was successful in efforts to place ballot initiatives on town meeting warrants calling for a statewide referendum on the issue. And he sponsored a bill to repeal the marriage law two years after it passed; that bill failed.

A decade later, Bates said he hasn’t changed his mind about the issue. “My belief from the beginning, and it still is, is that the essence of marriage is the union of one man, one woman,” he said.

He’s not opposed to gay people, he said. “I wasn’t saying they can’t live their lives the way they choose,” he said.

“This has never been about people being able to love the person they love. That was a very effective argument; it makes an emotional appeal and persuades people,” Bates said. But he contends that was “a misdirection.”

The only reason the state has an interest in marriage at all, he said, “is the fact that the union of a male and a female ordinarily, under normal circumstances, results in the propagation of a new life.”

Bates says the law passed because Democrats were “a little more savvy” than his fellow Republicans in managing the politics of the issue. For Republican lawmakers back then, he said, “It seemed safer in many cases to disappoint conservatives than some of these very well-organized, very well-funded lobbying groups.”

“If you’re in disfavor with one of these particular groups, you become a target and get swept out of office.”

Bates said a lot of “hateful animosity” was directed toward him. But he said he never said anything “unkind or unfair” about those on the other side.

Brinck Slattery of Manchester testified in favor of the marriage equality law. He was 24 years old and a conservative Republican. “I’ve always been concerned about fairness and basic human rights, in the sense of just treating people equally no matter what their personal choices are, and not discriminating against people for the things they choose to do that don’t harm anyone else,” he said in a recent interview. To him, it’s a “profoundly conservative idea,” he said.

Slattery said he has a number of gay friends. “And it just didn’t make any sense to me that they aren’t allowed the same contractual options for their relationships as everybody else,” he said. “It’s deeply unfair.”

In his Senate testimony, Slattery quoted Ronald Reagan to make his point: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. … It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

Slattery also made a fiscal argument to lawmakers, testifying that “it would be irresponsible — no, insane — to turn away the millions of dollars that tourism would bring to the state as a result of passing this bill.”

That argument turned out to be “shortsighted,” Slattery said with a laugh; he thought it would be decades before same-sex marriages were recognized nationwide. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court did that in 2015.

Ten years after marriage equality

Lisa, left, and Jeanine Merrill of Concord have a laugh while playing a board game in their house earlier this month.

Jeanine and Lisa Merrill of Concord will celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in August. They have good jobs, volunteer in their communities, and belong to two churches, where they feel welcomed and valued, they said. They’re close to their grown children.

Lisa Merrill’s former wife, her partner of 24 years, died six years ago. “The day the law was passed, we went to City Hall and got the license,” she recalled. “We had a good life together.”

Lisa Merrill works for the state; Jeanine Merrill works for an agency that helps veterans. They met through a mutual friend.

Ten years after marriage equality passed here, Lisa Merrill said, she feels validated. “I don’t have to be afraid. I don’t have to hide in a closet,” she said. “I have rights just like everybody else.”

Jeanine Merrill, then Jeanine Brady, testified at the Senate hearing on the marriage bill in 2009, talking about her unhappy marriage to her former husband, her years of volunteer work and her realization that she was gay. Some friends turned their backs on her, she told the lawmakers, but she’s the same person she always was. “I sit next to you at church, I took care of your children, I volunteered at festivals, I sit next to you in the lunchroom, I work in your office, and I’m still your mother, sister, daughter and your friend,” she said.

Ten years after marriage equality

Jeanine, left, and Lisa Merrill carry groceries into their Concord house.

A lot has changed in the ten years since, she said. “People are able to walk down the street holding hands if they want,” she said. “Sometimes I still get a little nervous because there’s still some people out there that aren’t accepting of that.”

“But with the support of the state, I’m able to be who I’m meant to be, and love my wife, and be a family,” she said.

Former lawmaker Bates, who served four terms in the Legislature, said while it’s conceivable the U.S. Supreme Court could take up same-sex marriage again someday, that seems “very, very unlikely.”

“Apart from some unforeseeable massive shift in sentiment and understanding across our country, it seems like the issue is settled,” he said.

But Bates said the full ramifications of this cultural shift remain to be seen. “Ten years may seem like a long time, but it’s still really, really early to see how this is going to play out,” he said.

Jeanine Merrill said the fight for equal rights continues, particularly for transgender individuals. “I think we have a lot more work to do on diversity and being all-inclusive,” she said. “I think we’re on the road to that, and I just hope that as the days move forward, we don’t turn back the hands of time to make things harder for people again.”

A recent Gallup poll found that about one-third of Americans say same-sex marriages should not be recognized by law as valid. Splaine said that shows there’s still work to be done. “We still have to make the case that equality is important,” he said.

Splaine said he thinks the way first-in-the-nation New Hampshire passed marriage equality influenced national events, helping to convince then-President Barack Obama to change his view on the issue and contributing to the eventual Supreme Court decision that legalized it nationwide.

It’s not likely that the high court would revisit the issue, he said. But, he said, “Our rights are only as good as the next election, and you just never know what’s going to happen.”

“I often say there’s nothing more important on this planet than the way we treat each other,” Splaine said. “If we treated one another better, we’d eliminate all wars, we’d eliminate intolerance, we’d generate acceptance. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but at least we have to try.”

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