“I don’t like lesbians. I don’t like fags. That’s the name of the game,” smirks a Boston-area supporter of a state legislator in Saving Marriage, which traces the 2003-06 political strategizing and gamesmanship following the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples could not be denied civil marriages. The “marriage protection” forces moved to amend the state’s constitution to exclude gays via the convoluted procedure of a ballot referendum that was first subject to two legislative votes in the space of two years, with the entire chamber up for election in between. After the first State House vote approved the hetero-only measure, activists advocating gay marriage as an essential civil right, led by the group Mass Equality, looked to unseat reps who cast yes votes or lobby those who could be swayed by a surge in constituent opposition to the ban.
Like other recent agitprop docs, Saving Marriage leans on players in the policymaking game as talking heads on issues and tactics, people with a personal stake in the outcome to fully humanize the issue and a few who straddle both categories. Key lobbyist Arline Isaacson, citing her current need for marriage-related benefits for her children, remembers scoffing at the marital bond in her nascent ‘70s feminist days as “a heteronormative institution!” As for queers who would argue that it remains one, you won’t hear them here, but mostly a sentimental team of advocates who insist on using the hets’ M-word and not settling for civil unions. Heart tuggers on behalf of institutionalized monogamy include an adorable young lesbian couple (both social workers) who, after picking out wedding rings together, long to be accepted by stunned, rejecting family members; moms pounding the pavement with petitions so their gay sons can have the same festive nuptials as their straight ones; a pro-gay state rep who draws parallels to her long-standing, frowned-upon marriage to a much older man.
If a guy in his mid 20s mooning over his boyfriend’s use of “please” in a proposal note slathers the goop on a bit thickly, directors John Henning and Mike Roth are crisper with the nuts and bolts of the antigay amendment campaign, particularly the underdog attempt of political novice Carl Sciortino to defeat an entrenched incumbent rep (whose allies tail Sciortino so they can alert citizens that the candidate they just chatted with “is a fag”). Saving Marriage‘s hopeful populism includes soundbites from some straight, working-class, pro-gay voices to counter the homophobes. “Life as we know it is changing,” yelps a tolerant woman outside Fenway Park in the fall of ‘04. “The Red Sawx just won the World Series!”