History is being made Saturday in town offices all over the state.
As of 12:01 a.m. Saturday, couples who could not before legally marry were able to apply for a license and tie the knot. Maine residents who have already been married in other states such as Vermont, Massachusetts or New Hampshire will automatically have their unions recognized here under state law.
To accommodate this, municipal offices in Falmouth and Portland opened at midnight to let people marry as soon as the law allowed. This has resulted in some predictable griping from opponents of same-sex marriage in the recent campaign who say that this would open the door to special rights.
But this is about equal rights, not special rights. People who have been waiting all their lives to legally form a family are not getting special treatment if the city clerk’s office opens a little early.
There is precedent for this. Clerk’s offices often hold unusual hours so people can register to vote or cast a ballot. And these are paying customers. The people lining up at the clerk’s offices will be paying a fee for a license and more if they want to exchange marriage vows.
But there is something special about this day, and the cities and towns are right to decide to take their part in history. Yes, this is historic.
This is the civil rights issue of our time. In a generation, homosexuality has gone from being considered a form of mental illness and criminal behavior to an aspect of complex humanity.
It was 15 years ago that Maine voters refused to uphold a civil rights law that protected gay residents from discrimination in employment, credit and public accomodations. It took two more ballot initiatives before the voters finally said “yes.”
Three years ago, voters struck down a same-sex marriage law that had been passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. At that time, it was part of a long string of defeats at the polls for marriage equality.
But this year, the tide turned. Maine voters approved same-sex marriage, and at the same time, so did voters in Washington state and Maryland.
This is a dramatic change, not just for the people who will be now be able to marry, but also for the many thousands who thought about their situation and decided it was unfair to deny families led by same-sex partners the protections and dignity of marriage.
Passing laws does not make discrimination go away, but it does mark progress. When we reach a historic milestone, it’s right to celebrate.