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July 01, 2003

A Conversation with a Goodridge Plaintiff

Editor's Note: The following interview presents a conversation between Mary Bonauto, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in Goodridge, and Gina Smith, one of the plaintiffs in the case. Ms. Smith lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her partner of twelve years, Heidi Norton. They have two sons, Avery and Quinn.

MB: You both work. You have two young sons. You're busy in your community with Quaker Meeting, gospel choir, and volunteering. Why did you want to participate in this lawsuit?

GS: There were many reasons, but the strongest were Avery and Quinn. We knew having children was a very serious commitment, and we wanted to do whatever we could to care for them. So we made arrangements for their financial and emotional care in the event that something happens to one or both of us. Being excluded from marriage, we had our lawyer create documents proving the boys are related to each of us. The packing checklist for our family trips includes that stack of legal documents.

We also knew that no matter how high that stack gets, without their parents being able to marry, we could do only so much to protect our kids. Being a part of this lawsuit is another way we can fulfill our commitment to them. We want them to be as secure financially and legally as their peers.

Beyond the legal reasons, Avery and Quinn will know that we stood up for them, and our family, by trying to make a positive change in the world.

MB: Have the kids talked to you about marriage?

GS: Avery, who is six, has asked us if we are married. We show him the certificate from our commitment celebration held ten years ago, which is signed by over one hundred family and friends. We tell him that we are married in our hearts. But we are honest with him and tell him that the state does not understand our commitment to each other, and that we cannot get married to each other legally. Both of the boys know we are very committed to being a family. Avery has a very sophisticated understanding of our relationship; the state just is not there yet.

MB: You were born in 1964, just as Congress enacted broad civil rights laws and shortly before the Supreme Court decided Loving and ended state marital restrictions based on race. What did these issues mean to you as a young African American girl at the time?

GS: I was very aware of the civil rights movement growing up. A couple of my aunts often talked about taking part in marches and rallies promoting civil rights for African Americans. Loving seemed another way that the government stopped restricting my ability to find happiness. Most of the issues seemed to deal with what happened outside of my house-work and school, for instance. But Loving was about something more personal and intimate that the state could not regulate for me. I knew that I could look for a spouse who loved me and cared for me and that the state could not dictate what that person should look like.

MB: Have those experiences affected your thinking about Massachusetts's exclusion of you and Heidi from marriage?

GS: Looking at the two, I see a lesson in how granting our right to marry will benefit the state, just as removing the prohibition on interracial marriage benefited the state. The rights and responsibilities that come with marriage allow people who want to care for each other to do so, relieving the state of the burden and creating stable homes for children. The government did not benefit from barring interracial couples from marrying; it only kept people who loved and cared for each other from being able to do so.

Heidi and I love each other, are raising two great kids, and only ask that the state give us the same tools it gives other families.

MB: Let's assume you and Heidi prevail and marriage becomes available to you in Massachusetts. What will that mean for your family?

GS: I suspect that becoming legally married will mean a new level of respect for our relationship. That is, after all, the power of the word "marriage." It will help our family to be even stronger. One thing is clear, when Avery and Quinn ask if we are married, we will be able to answer yes, and they can go back to playing without any need for further explanation.