Northeastern pioneering activist reflects on Respect for Marriage Act

This post originally appeared on News @ Northeastern. It was published by Ian Thomsen. 

From her seat on the South Lawn of the White House, Jean McGuire watched President Joe Biden sign into law the Respect for Marriage Act, which provides federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriages. She was surprised by her emotions.

“It was harder than I expected it to be,” says McGuire, a Northeastern professor of the practice in health sciences with more than 30 years of senior experience in public health. Much of her career has been devoted to her work in Washington, D.C., as a health-care lobbyist, a director of national policy organizations and coalitions in HIV/AIDS and disability, and a leader on LGBT-related policies.

02/11/19 – BOSTON, MA. – Professor Jean McGuire poses for a portrait in West Village H on Feb. 11, 2019. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

She returned to Washington to attend the Dec. 13 ceremony in the absence of her wife of 18 years, Dr. Barbara Herbert, a physician activist who died in April from respiratory arrest and chronic asthma. They had been the 10th same-sex couple in the U.S. to be married when such unions were legalized in Massachusetts in 2004.

As she took in the speeches, McGuire could not help but relive her role in the mission for equality. Neither she nor Herbert had longed to be married after the dissolutions of their “traditional” marriages.

It was after reading a brief filed by a lawyer on behalf of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, where McGuire was assistant commissioner, that she and Herbert recognized the need to define and defend their right to be married.

“It was really horrifying when I understood what was going on in our brief—to see the repetition of ‘scientific evidence’ of how lesbians raised promiscuous kids and how harmed children are in the context of that,” says McGuire, who insisted that the brief be amended to remove the inaccurate information. “The author of the brief was one of our general counsels who had come to me not a year before because her teenage daughter had come out to her as gay and she didn’t know how to handle it.

“We were moved to embrace marriage when we realized that people, like this general counsel, could publicly assert that ‘some of their best friends were gay’ and privately—and not so privately—participate in our denigration and discrimination,” McGuire says.

So much depended on their right to be married.