BOSTON — As a college student in the early 1970s, Tommi Avicolli Mecca joined the Gay Liberation Front, one of the first groups to publicly challenge the notion of the American nuclear family.
This week, 30 years later, the San Francisco activist has opted to stay on the sidelines in a defining moment for the gay-rights movement. "I don't want to be a part of it," he says. "In some senses, it feels like the whole gay marriage thing is like getting a little house with a white picket fence in the suburbs with a dog."
In recent days, thousands of gay marriage advocates have overrun the steps, halls, and offices of the Massachusetts State House in support of a November ruling by the state's highest court that gays have a constitutional right to marry. But if they have created a united front to state lawmakers, the gay community itself is divided on whether marriage is the right priority.
Many gays and lesbians plan to wed. Many others will not. Some want to marry as a legal protection or as the only nondiscriminatory way to validate their love. But marriage is also seen as a flawed institution, as a conservative step backward, unwinding years of work to redefine notions of family.
"There is a difference between liberation and equality," says Joan Tronto, a professor of political science at Hunter College who was active in the women's liberation movement and has no intention of marrying her partner of 10 years. "Politically it is easier to say, 'Let us in. We're just like you.' But it takes away some of the radical edge."
The difference in attitudes often falls along generational lines. Charles Martel, a Boston psychotherapist whose clients include many gay couples, says marriage seems natural to younger couples, especially those with children. Meanwhile, older clients, many of whom fought to restructure the definition of family in the 60s and 70s, are more mistrustful.
"Marriage wasn't something they had ever thought about," says Mr. Martel. "They didn't grow up with people who were out. It's a totally different language [to them]."
Take Carl Sciortino, the manager of research opportunities at Fenway Community Health in Boston. The 20-something always knew he'd get married. "I didn't know how it would happen," he says, "but I knew I was going to have a family some day."
Does he expect his gay friends to get hitched soon? "Oh, yeah," he says, laughing. "Even the friends that are my age, who aren't fully ready ... want that license, before the chance passes."
He is referring to a two-year window of opportunity from May 17, when the court said the state must begin granting marriage licenses, to the time an amendment could conceivably be added to the state constitution, in 2006.
But for Avicolli Mecca, a tenants' activist who works with homeless gay youths in San Francisco, marriage is not a priority. "If that's what people want, that's OK," he says. "But marriage is a luxury we cannot afford. I'm not going to spend my time fighting for it."
That's how many felt when the gay marriage issue first began to really percolate. Evan Wolfson, a leading gay rights attorney and the executive director for Freedom to Marry, says he always saw marriage as a battleground to question government involvement in personal lives.
He worked on the first gay marriage case to be decided by the Hawaii Supreme Court in 1993, when the debate was not largely embraced by the gay community. "There were those who were ideologically resistant to fighting for marriage," Mr. Wolfson says. "Others felt that fighting for marriage would be too hard or too threatening."
But civil unions and domestic partnerships, and eventually gay marriage, rose on the agenda - first in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands of partners weren't granted hospital rights, and later throughout the '90s, as gay and lesbian parents began to adopt, and wanted full rights for their children.
Indeed, Ms. Tronto suspects she's one of a few "holdouts" left. But after fighting for gay recognition outside the traditional conventions, she worries that focusing too much on marriage is making the gay community conform to the patterns of mainstream society. And she frets about a backlash - that the movement has gained so much speed recently that strategists need to question if it runs the risk of adding fuel to a US constitutional amendment, "which would be very hard to change."
Kenneth Sherrill, a colleague of hers at Hunter College, was not much of an activist for same-sex marriage - until he got married himself in Canada this summer, to his partner of 36 years.
Initially the couple looked at it as a purely legal arrangement. "I thought it wouldn't be that different than going to a lawyer's office and signing a contract," he says. "But it had the most incredible emotional impact. ... I was fighting off tears during the ceremony."
For Betsy Dorries and Dana Beauvais, it is their four children they are thinking about as they stand outside the Massachusetts State House during a rally for gay marriage. Their 18-month-old son, Charlie Dorries, is hoisted on Betsy's back, a sign hangs across his babypack: "Let my Moms marry." They, like many of their peers, have a wedding date already in mind: May 17.
Indeed, a deluge in gay weddings is expected this summer. Already hotel owners and restaurateurs in Provincetown, Cape Cod, are warning they will soon be booked with receptions through the summer. The assistant town clerk, Aaron Leventman, says the office may get local volunteers to help issue licenses.
But for many gays and lesbians, their personal lives will be unaffected.
Mike Sullivan of Somerville, Mass., will continue to go home to the partner he has lived with for 22 years. Both will continue to wear rings they exchanged to show their commitment. Neither views marriage negatively, but it isn't for them, for now. "Our relationship is not the state or federal government's business," says Mr. Sullivan. "[The gay marriage debate] has no bearing on what we want for ourselves."