‘It gets better’
Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. It’s cold. I find myself standing deep in a crowd of 400 to 500 cheerful people in front of the Seacoast Repertory Theatre on Bow Street. We are there showing our support of “The Laramie Project,” a play about the 1998 hate crime beating death of openly gay Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo.
A well-known hate group from Kansas had threatened a protest of their own, and citizens from throughout the Portsmouth area are coming together to counter them with peaceful and accepting voices.Yes, it’s cold. But warm. The haters never show up. Love does.The cause of acceptance of human diversity has come so far.August 1993. It seems like so long ago. The Portsmouth City Council was considering the first ordinance in the state to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. Only half a dozen states had such protections. As assistant mayor at the time, I made the proposal after seeing first-hand for so many years how our gay and lesbian friends were sometimes treated.The council chamber was full with supporters and opponents. After a long and somewhat contentious public hearing, the vote: 5-4 against. Later, there would be a referendum on the ballot that would defeat the measure by nearly a 2-1 margin. The beginnings of gay equality had been taken, and were stopped only temporarily.But the battle was taken to the State House, where in 1997 New Hampshire became then just the 11th state to add “sexual orientation” to our civil rights statutes.In 2000, the state allowed adoption by gays and lesbians. In 2007, we became just one of half a dozen states to grant civil unions. In 2009, we became the fifth state to provide for legal marriage.”It gets better” is a message for young gays – of any age, actually – who face bullying or hate. It’s a message that we should be accepting of people for who they are. The path hasn’t been easy – and much more needs to be done, but things are getting better.When I met with Gov. John Lynch in 2007 to encourage him to support and sign the civil unions bill, and then in 2009 when I talked with him about the marriage equality legislation that for a while he opposed, I told him that his public support would give a positive message to our young people, and even save lives.By getting behind the bills, the governor showed that New Hampshire accepts, appreciates and respects all of us for who we are. That we’re all valued. That as Americans we should all be equal under the law.He contributed to that message of “It gets better” when he signed both bills with courage and pride. Questions about sexuality are one of the leading causes of suicide among youth under age 20. Those pictures of a popular governor signing gay equality legislation in 2007 and again in 2009 were distributed throughout the world. When he did so, I think he saved lives. He let kids who might have been bullied or faced hate know that a state government, and a governor, is saying that it’s OK to be gay – or whoever you are.Right now, there is an attempt in the Legislature to repeal marriage equality. In February, more than 700 supporters of gay marriage filled the State House to oppose going backward. When large groups of people show up to support equality and diversity, or stand on a street on a cold evening opposing hate and ignorance, things are getting better.According to the N.H. Bureau of Vital Statistics, there are 1,400 same-gender marriages in our state. That means almost 3,000 of our gay and lesbian friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors – our fellow citizens – are sharing their love and caring for one another in marriage.They are enjoying their American dream of liberty and justice for all. That’s a wonderful thing.Jim Splaine is a former longtime Democratic state representative, state senator and assistant mayor from Portsmouth. This article originally appeared in the Portsmouth Herald.