Mike Roth and John Henning’s documentary Saving Marriage offers for posterity a record of the recent developments in the gay civil rights movement playing out in Massachusetts. With a combination of documentary footage, talking-head interviews, and news clips, the filmmakers lay out the unfolding (and unending) story of the political and legal struggle to define marriage.
In November of 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal, a development that devastated the conservative opponents of “redefining” marriage as something other than the exclusive right of a man and a woman. “It was to me as traumatic a moment as the day that Kennedy was assassinated,” says Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute. Mineau maintains that the freedom of equality represented by gay marriage in fact causes “confusion” and “disorder” for families that threatens to disrupt existing heterosexual marriages.
Roth and Henning spend little time allowing Mineau and others like him to dig themselves deeper into this hole, though they do sort out that many opponents to gay marriage are ardent supporters of “compromise,” namely the use of the term “civil union” to afford the necessary legal protections for gay couples (joint tax returns, social security benefits, family health insurance, family medical leave, inheritance rights) without redefining the word marriage. Advocates for gay marriage reject the compromise on moral grounds, identifying the “civil union” as separate and unequal treatment.
The Massachusetts Legislature would address the issue at a Constitutional Convention. So even as excited couples lined up to marry, they knew their marriages stood a good chance of being invalidated. Sound familiar? A two-part voting process—first in 2004 and then in 2005—would determine whether or not an amendment could be left to the voters to decide on a 2006 general election ballot. Gay marriage advocates convincingly point out that, in the 1960s, laws guaranteeing equal rights to African Americans would never have been affirmed by popular vote, but that the government has a moral responsibility to uphold basic freedoms. As one gay marriage advocate says of amendment proposals, “How long will we be under siege?”
While acknowledging the point of view of the opposition, Saving Marriage unabashedly (and justly) sides with the gay civil rights movement and illuminates its impressive grass-roots mobilization. One impressive success story belongs to first-time candidate Carl Sciortino, who gets the Republican old-guard sweating with his work ethic and vigorous campaign supporters. Gay marriage also gets tremendously eloquent rhetorical support from speakers like gay-rights lobbyist Arline Isaacson. Roth and Henning’s filmmaking technique may be rudimentary, and their documentary less than comprehensive, but it’s more than a statement of facts and ammo for a historic cause: it’s also a portrait of democracy in action with high personal stakes and, as such, a moving emotional experience.