THE WORLD at large is not very different since gay couples began exchanging wedding vows in Massachusetts on May 17. But this vast cultural shift is rocking some private political worlds.
"My life has really changed," says state Senator Marian Walsh, who is running for reelection in a district that includes West Roxbury, Hyde Park, Roslindale, Dedham, Westwood, and Norwood.
Last March she voted against amending the state Constitution to ban gay marriage but permit civil unions. With that vote, Walsh crossed her church and angered constituents in a socially conservative district. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference distributed a scorecard, taking her and other Catholic legislators to task for their position. Walsh is running against Robert Joyce of Roslindale, a lawyer and registered Independent, whose campaign literature calls for voters to "join the grass-roots campaign to ensure self-government and defend traditional marriage."
The constitutional amendment requires a second round of votes from legislators before it goes before voters. That prospect seems less likely given new leadership in the House of Representatives. But the long-range political prospects for gay marriage in Massachusetts are far removed from the door-to-door politicking required of a candidate for state senator.
Walsh considers her vote against the constitutional amendment one of conscience, reached after much gut-checking and many conversations with constituents of diverse viewpoints. It was not an easy decision for a prolife woman with a classic Boston Irish Catholic upbringing. She grew up in West Roxbury and attended Ursuline Academy and Newton College of the Sacred Heart. She is also a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and Suffolk University Law School. First elected to the House in 1988, Walsh has been a state senator since 1993.
She has taken controversial stands before, opposing state subsidies for the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots and calling for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. But this controversy is different, cutting to the core of religious and moral beliefs.
Once she came to view same-sex marriage through the prism of civil rights, Walsh decided she could not vote in favor of a constitutional amendment that would take rights away on the basis of sexual orientation. In an emotional speech to colleagues, she said: "Which constitutional right you know you enjoy do you want to give up?" Now Walsh finds herself explaining repeatedly to friends and neighbors why she voted as she did, up against a challenger who declares in a campaign flier, "Unlike Senator Walsh, I will defend your right to vote to define marriage in Massachusetts."
Her answer: She did not vote to take anyone's vote away. She voted, in a process stipulated by the Commonwealth's founding fathers, to preserve constitutional rights for all citizens. She is making the case constituent by constituent. Last weekend she sat on the front porch of a longtime supporter in Norwood. At the end of a lengthy discussion, the woman asked for house signs. It was one, small victory in a bigger battle that Walsh believes she can win but still might lose.
"When you don't vote the way people expect, people are disappointed, they feel let down, they feel a great loss. There is disappointment, anger, and confusion," she says. "I've done what I've done for all the right reasons. It has a cost. It should have a cost. I'm prepared to pay a cost."
The issue can cut both ways. On Sept. 17, Carl Sciortino, a political neophyte, beat state Representative Vincent P. Ciampa of Somerville in the Democratic primary for the 34th Middlesex District. Ciampa favors a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Sciortino, who is gay, won votes and campaign contributions from gay supporters, although the gay marriage ban was not the sole issue in this race.
West Roxbury is not Somerville. Walsh frequently comes across people arguing vehemently over gay marriage and the position she took. She says she understands the cultural divide. "For most people, even for people in the gay community, what happened was stunning," she says. "I am growing and learning. I think my constituents are, too. We are all muddling through."
She does not regret her position and will not change it if put again to a vote: "I am on a mission to protect the Constitution, to the best of my ability."
The voters will let her know soon enough whether her mission is theirs as well.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.