Gay marriages unite, and divide, families

One couple receives a marriage certificate, to cheers from some family members and distance from others.

Heidi Norton and Gina Smith stepped through the doors of Northampton's City Hall into what looked more like a Hawaiian luau than a crowd of wedding guests. Throngs cheered. Supporters waved rainbow banners that read "Love does not discriminate." Children in bright lei necklaces passed out homemade chocolate-chip cookies.

Heidi and Gina Nortonsmith, as they will now be called, are one of the seven plaintiff couples in the landmark case that legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts. Now, they're celebrities, too. Among those cheering them on were their sons, Avery and Quinn, and Heidi's father and stepmother, all grinning from granite steps.

Notably absent, however, were two other relatives, Heidi's brother and stepsister, who express unwavering support of their sister, but not of gay marriage. "I love Heidi just as much as I ever did, and I love Gina," says Steve Norton, a fifth-grade teacher in Greenland, N.H., who, like his stepsister, is a fundamentalist Christian. "Do I believe [gay marriage] is right? I don't. But I still love her and Gina. It's a tricky thing."

The Nortons' respectful divide is indicative of the way same-sex marriage is causing tensions in many US households.

While the issue has been debated endlessly in legislatures and courts as a matter of often abstract policy, the official legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts this week has brought the subject home to thousands of families across the country on an intensely personal level.

Many families, to be sure, fully support the idea of same-sex marriage. Others agree with cohabitation or civil unions, but stop short of embracing state-sanctioned unions. Still others struggle with the idea of homosexuality altogether.

All these and many more emotions were on display at ceremonies this week as more than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples from Massachusetts and other states exchanged vows. Mostly, the events were celebratory. But underneath, differences were evident, as some family members didn't show up.

Moreover, such complex reactions are likely to become more visible as Americans increasingly choose sides on the gay-marriage issue: Some states are moving to amend their constitutions to prevent gay couples from marrying, while others - such as Rhode Island and New York - have decided to recognize marriage licenses from Massachusetts as valid in their own states.

Back at city hall some couples - like Michael DiPasquali and David McGrath - are opting for a more subdued union, conscious of the tension their marriage can provoke. The men have been together 13 years and have two children, Jason and Marguerite. Each of their families, they say, supports their relationship - but their parents don't even want to hear the word "marriage."

"We're not dying to go out and rent a hall and have a huge party," Mr. DiPasquali says. "We have not talked to our parents at all about marriage." Mr. McGrath isn't sure they ever will. "My father's been heard to say he hopes he doesn't live to see the day when his son marries another man," he says. "Now that's a sad thing."

Beyond family units, communities have divided sharply - and more visibly than ever - as legislatures debate same-sex marriage into the night and lines of gay couples stream off the steps of city halls.

Jesse Molina says acceptance in her community - the small town of Northampton, Mass., nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires - has been just as important as her family's support.

That's given her courage to confront those who disagree, she says - and, sometimes, to rile the opposition even more. In Northampton on Monday, as a lone protester held a sign reading "No Al 'Gay'da," Jesse jumped in front of him with her own poster, demanding to know why she shouldn't marry her partner, Euphemia. The protester replied, "It's just wrong." And as rest of the crowd sang, "Going to the Chapel," Jesse launched into her own verse: "Going to the chapel and I'm going to get dentally insured."

Heidi's father, Perry, says his daughter leads by example. A staunch supporter of his daughter and her wife, he says change has "just got to come by compassionate example - not to vilify the people who don't agree, but to let them see that not only is the world not going to come to an end; it's going to be enriched by what these people have had the courage to do."

That drive for awareness, say Heidi and Gina, is part of their crusade. And along with a fight for the legal and economic benefits of marriage, they ground themselves in a larger struggle to encourage Americans to be more open about sexuality - something they feel families have long shied away from discussing.

"I find human beings and our emotions endlessly fascinating," Heidi said on the eve of their wedding as she set the table for pizza in their Northampton home. "Our sexual identities, and how we see ourselves, and how we change as people and experience ourselves - I find those all very interesting."

Heidi and Gina, an interracial couple, decided years ago to have two children by one African-American sperm donor so that their kids would be full siblings. Heidi carried both. No one in her family has taken issue with the interracial component of the family - something that would have been unthinkable, Perry says, just 50 years ago.

As they gathered around the table for dinner, "Mom" (Heidi) and "Mommy" (Gina), their two sons, Avery and Quinn, and Heidi's father, Perry, and stepmother, Bonnie, clasped hands in Quaker tradition, taking a moment to enunciate what they're thankful for.

Avery is thankful for all the things he loves in this world, he says; his younger brother Quinn is thankful for the purple flowers by his placemat. Next up is the grandmother, Bonnie. "I am thankful for all the things I don't love," she says, "because they make me a stronger person."

The next day, after hours of cameras and questions, hugs from supporters, and honks from passing cars, the Nortonsmiths head back home to have their marriage certificate signed in private.

Years of struggle, of adjusting to the limelight, have left the couple craving the moment of peace later that day in which, with the undying support of their parents and sons, they will exchange their wedding vows. When night falls, the mothers will give Avery and Quinn a bath, make sure the boys brush their teeth and check off the flossing box on the chore list pegged to the bathroom door, and head to the privacy of their own room, recognized for the first time in their 13-year relationship as a married union - together, they commit, 'til death do them part.

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