Present at the Revolution

Additional reporting by James Burnett, Erin Byers, Ciara LaVelle, Christian Polidoro, Andrew Rimas, and John Wolfson.

Jesse Posner wants to hear the music. So when the Brookline High School senior steps out of the Park Street subway station, she veers left, toward a stage. Within minutes, she realizes her mistake. The songs coming from the stage are hymns, the throngs of people surrounding her, fundamentalist Christians. She starts to cry. Three men surround her and ask what's wrong. Then they see her sign, the computer-generated one she safety-pinned to the back of her vest. It reads, “I [heart] My 2 Moms.”

“You're a sinner,” the men yell. “Your parents are going to hell.” Others try to help. “How dare you!” she says, even to the kinder ones. “How dare you be here and be so hateful!” Looking down, she spins away.

“My friends love my moms,” Posner explains later when her eyes have dried. “They're going to be married, and then I can be legally bound to both of them.” She has planned for a month to be here, outside the State House, during her free periods in the morning as legislators inside debate the issue of gay marriage, “This is probably the most important day of my whole life,” she says.

Posner is one of thousands of protesters and activists who have gathered on Boston Common and along Beacon Street to argue for or against a proposed constitutional amendment that would nullify the state Supreme Judicial Court's decision to make same-sex marriage legal. Walk up the path that parallels Park Street and see their signs at the top of the hill: “Jesus is the Lord,” “Separate is never equal,” “Let the people vote.” It takes only about a minute to understand that anyone wearing a round yellow sticker is against same-sex marriage, and anyone wearing a rectangular white sticker is for it. There is no one here who hasn't taken sides. The people who are here are here because they've taken sides.

Jacob Echeverria wanted to be the first one in line. He woke up at 4 a.m., showered, put on his black fur hat with earflaps, and made his way downtown from his house in Roxbury. By 4:45 he was at the State House. He was there for two hours before any other protesters even started to arrive. Only TV trucks lined the street before him, their transmission towers piercing the dark sky that slowly came to glow with morning.

By 8 a.m., throngs of people are behind him. The line stretches out to the street and bends along the sidewalk.

“My own opinion of gays is that they've been abused,” Echeverria, who is originally from Guatemala, says in heavily accented English from his coveted position at the front of the line. “We need to help them instead of supporting them. They are good people. They have good education. They move the economy. But they should not be married.”

Next to him are Debra Randolph-Benson and her daughter Brandi. Debra is a beautiful, wide-faced woman with smooth, cocoa-colored skin. Her daughter, who is eight years old, looks just like her. Inside the glass doors, out of the cold, are her other children, Michael, Dominique, and Madison, and her husband, André. She gestures to her family. They wave back through the glass. “We want to show that this is a symbol of the union of a man and a woman,” she says. “This is what God created men and women for.”

Fifteen minutes later, outside the entrance to the House of Representatives chamber on the third floor, Marcy Feibelman, a 23-year-old student from Brown University, is standing with her legs apart, waving her arms to the side like she's making an imaginary snow angel.

“Just stand along here! We're claiming space,” she shouts to the gay-rights activists milling around her. She's wearing red-white-and-blue bandannas tied in her short, curly hair, and rainbow-striped bandannas around her arms. She's holding laminated cards with the words of various patriotic anthems printed on them. Beside her is the Reverend Maureen Reddington-Wilde, a tower of a woman, who happens to be a minister from something called the Church of the Sacred Earth.

“My generation hasn't had to fight for anything,” Feibelman says above the din. “We were born with most of our rights. This is the first time we can feel history's ground shaking. My heart says this is the time for change.”

Nearby, a small group of artsy-looking Emerson students sings “Over the Rainbow” in perfect pitch. They've given up their spring break to be here. “We're here while our friends are drinking margaritas on the beach,” says Stephanie Ellis, a freshman with long, dark hair and a gray scarf draped around her neck. “We just want to sing. We're trying to be a huge presence, and part of that is taking up space with the hate people shout at us. Show tunes are a big way to fight hate.” The students laugh, but then Michael Sherrin, who is gay, turns serious. Sherrin is a slight 20-year-old with dark, wavy hair and piercing eyes. “There are people who think I shouldn't exist,” he says. “But I'm not going anywhere.”

By 8:30 a.m. the lobby in front of the House chamber is filled with gay-rights activists. Marcy Feibelman is holding her laminated cards over her head and coaching the people gathered in front of her. “We're going to sing softly at first so we can preserve our voices,” she says. The first song is “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the chorus of which the protesters intersperse with chants of “Justice now,” “Equal rights,” and “We are equal.” A small group of college students and casually dressed fortysomethings are holding hands, which they raise in the air as they walk in a circle. Some have small instruments. When the crowd segues from “We Shall Not Be Moved” to “My Country 'Tis of Thee,” a middle-aged woman arrives holding an infant wearing a knit cap. The woman has dark hair and a serious demeanor, like she's just plain had enough. Her name is Claire Humphrey. Her baby, George, is six months old.

“There's his other mother,” Humphrey says, pointing across the crowd toward a woman with shoulder-length gray hair. “That's my wife. We've been together 10 years. We were recognized by our church six years ago. When the SJC decision came down, I understood why people who've been denied rights work so hard to protect their equality. It's intoxicating. It's addictive.”

Steps away from Humphrey, 15 women are on their knees, their heads pressed to the cold, marble floor. Two others stand outside the group, holding Bibles above their heads. They are sisters, Nancy and Carmen. “We don't hate gay people,” Nancy says. “But we do believe what the Bible says. We just want our voices to be heard. We should have the right to vote.”

“We are the voice of the Lord,” Carmen adds. “And we are claiming his truth.” Several television crews push their cameras and microphones toward the group, steadying their spotlights on them. But with the exception of the women's lips, which mouth their prayers, they don't move.

Outside, hordes more people representing both sides of the debate are gathered on the steps and sidewalks in front of the State House. Men and women holding signs that read, “One man, one woman” stand shoulder-to-shoulder with gay-rights activists chanting, “Equal rights.” Eddies of debate swirl wherever the two sides come up against each other. “God loves me!” a woman in black spandex yells to a man carrying an anti-gay sign. “God hates your sin,” he responds in a loud, angry tone. “God loves me!” she yells back, over and over.

A group of black boys and girls face each other, the boys shouting, “One man!” and the girls responding, “One woman!” Each group jumps with the syllables; a tambourine provides percussion. A few yards away a black woman with thin dreadlocks chants her dissent in time with the tambourine: “Jesus don't dis-crim-i-nate. Jesus don't dis-crim-i-nate.” An older man approaches and jeers, in rhythm, “Read the Word. Read the Word.”

On the corner of Park and Beacon streets, a bunch of children ranging in age from about 6 to 12 stand among a handful of adults. The children hold anti-gay-marriage signs made with red and blue glitter. “God loves sinners but hates sin,” one says. “God made the sexes and they're not equal,” says another. A third reads, “It just isn't natural.” The boys wear collared shirts, ties, coats, and dress shoes. The girls wear long dresses. Some have video cameras and microphones, as if they're doing a school project. A few wear rubber masks of George W. Bush and Abraham Lincoln. Occasionally, they break away from chanting “God hates sin” and start playing. Then, as a group of gay-rights activists walks past, one boy yells, “Go back into the closet and come back straight!”

A few yards away, other kids shout into megaphones, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, homosexuals have got to go.” A gray-haired man leans into them, instructing, “Hold the megaphone up and talk more slowly.”

Down the block, Ben Narsil carries a large, black sign anchored to his belt that reads, “God hates sin.” He stands in an ocean of gay-rights supporters who have been heckling him all day. At one point the wind blows his sign so hard that it creases and hits him in the face, knocking his hat and glasses askew. The gay-rights supporters laugh. “That was God who did that,” one of them says. “See, God hates you, too!”

Narsil ignores them and explains his sign: “Homosexuality is, in God's eyes, very bad. It's not just bad. It's very bad. It's the worst kind of sin. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 10. It is an abomination that virtually makes God want to vomit. It nauseates him.”

Down the hill, the area around the stage has taken on the feel of an old-time revival meeting, with ministers calling out prayers in passionate tones, and listeners shouting “Amen” and waving their arms above their heads in agreement.

Beyond the revivalists, six pro-gay-marriage demonstrators stand on park benches with their backs to the stage. They're wearing large, white angel wings made of bed sheets. They are Suffolk University students who made the wings for their production of The Laramie Project, based on the story of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming, when he was 21. They've been standing there for hours, and so, to ease their boredom, they decide to form a conga line. The first in line wears a rainbow flag, the symbol of the gay-rights movement, as a cape. They snake through the revivalists.

A black minister who's part of the anti-gay-marriage group tries to impede the conga line's progress, backpedaling in front of it along with one of his followers. This prompts a confrontation between the young man leading the conga line, the minister, and their respective allies. “What you're doing is like interrupting a church service,” the minister yells. “Keep your distance and protest over there.”

“What if someone said you couldn't get married because you're black?” the student in the cape asks.

By midafternoon, protesters on both sides are flagging. Their chants ebb and flow. Andy Lehman and his wife, who are from Lowell, distribute free buttons near the steps to the Common. Lehman has made 300 buttons in 20 different varieties. One reads, “God hates shrimp,” a reference to the line from Leviticus 11:12: “Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.”

“It doesn't really bother me what the anti-gay-marriage protesters are saying,” Lehman says, “because I'm straight. I'm my own little affinity group. This is activism where I won't get arrested.”

Back inside the State House, the gay-marriage activists are still singing “My Country 'Tis of Thee.” Claire Humphrey is still standing out in front, baby George tight in her arms. Marcy Feibelman is leaning against a pillar, holding her laminated cards. The Reverend Maureen Reddington-Wilde waves a small American flag.

The legislators finally take a vote a little after 5:30 p.m. Outside the chamber, Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, stands on a chair and tries to explain the result to the gay-marriage supporters before her. “What I'm going to tell you is strange and confusing,” Isaacson says. “What just won is a substitute, a chance to kill all gay-marriage amendments. This moves us toward the possibility of having no anti-gay amendments.” The crowd cheers, their signs wave, but they seem unsure of whether this is a victory.

A woman in her 20s stands beside her partner, tears streaming down her tired face. She is Amy Whitehead-Pleau. “It just feels so close,” she says. Her partner, Annette, picks up where she leaves off. “It's been such a long struggle. We've been fighting for this for most of our lives.” “We've been together for five years,” Amy continues. “We sent our photographs from our wedding to every legislator. We used our money for our wedding photographs to do that.”

Outside, as the day begins to wind down, the revivalists end their protest by marching up the Common, pushing past the gay-rights activists to join their comrades across Beacon Street. Some pro-gay-marriage demonstrators taunt them. The revivalist leader says, “Don't answer, don't push” over and over. “That's right,” one gay-rights activist responds, “Don't look at the gay people.”

In the same spot a few hours earlier, a motley group of men wearing yellow armbands and baseball caps had crossed the street in the other direction. Their hats said, “I love being a dad,” and they carried a banner that read, “Children deserve their fathers. Make shared parenting the standard.” This was the Fatherhood Coalition, a group organized to promote shared parenting and protest what it calls discrimination against divorced fathers. At first it wasn't clear which side of the gay-marriage debate they were on.

Joe Schebel, a carpenter from western Massachusetts and cochair of the coalition, explained that the group had officially taken a stance against gay marriage. But it was clear that this decision wasn't unanimous. “I think that was stupid,” said Bob MacEwen Jr., a big man with a flattop and a beard, when he heard Schebel's pronouncement. “How does the Fatherhood Coalition feel about acid rain? Are we going to take a position on that, too?” Asked about the group's signs and hats, MacEwen said, “It should say 'divorced dads,' or we shouldn't be here. This is confusing people.”

Another member of the divorced-dads group, Denis St. Laurent, joined the impromptu sidewalk discussion. “I don't know why people want to get married,” St. Laurent mused. “I don't think this crowd understands what happens in divorce court.”