Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian State Workers

The governor of Massachusetts was the first governor in the United States to sign an executive order granting lesbian and gay state workers the same bereavement and family leave rights as heterosexual workers.

Summary of Event

In 1992, Massachusetts governor William F. Weld signed Executive Order 340, “Providing for Non-Discriminatory Benefit Policies for Employees of the Commonwealth,” with the intention of protecting Massachusetts state workers from employment-related discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Because there already had been a nondiscrimination law on the books that established Massachusetts’s obligation to extend protections based on sexual orientation (as of November, 1989), it followed that the state had to ensure that its employment policies “are in harmony with the established obligations of Chapter 151B” of Executive Order 340. [kw]Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian State Workers (Sept. 23, 1992)
[kw]Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian State Workers, Massachusetts Grants (Sept. 23, 1992)
[kw]Rights to Gay and Lesbian State Workers, Massachusetts Grants Family (Sept. 23, 1992)
[kw]Gay and Lesbian State Workers, Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to (Sept. 23, 1992)
[kw]Lesbian State Workers, Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and (Sept. 23, 1992)
[kw]State Workers, Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian (Sept. 23, 1992)
[kw]Workers, Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian State (Sept. 23, 1992)
Employment rights;Massachusetts
Antidiscrimination laws;Massachusetts
Civil rights;Massachusetts
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 23, 1992: Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian State Workers[2200]
[c]Civil rights;Sept. 23, 1992: Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian State Workers[2200]
[c]Government and politics;Sept. 23, 1992: Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian State Workers[2200]
Weld, William F.

The 1992 executive order called for expanded bereavement and family leave rights for the same-gender domestic partners of state employees. Although its wording appeared to extend these benefits to all state workers, the employee population actually impacted was small; only those at the senior level of management were eligible. The order also defined the characteristics of those gay and lesbian relationships that would qualify for the newly mandated extension of benefits to same-gender domestic partners. Next, it stated that the commonwealth’s personnel administration department was to administer the necessary regulations and policies.

The executive order laid the foundation for a groundswell of grassroots efforts to chip away at systemic homophobia and discrimination. However, arguably the most critical of benefits—that of health insurance coverage—continued to be exempt from efforts to provide equitable benefits to the spousal equivalents of gay and lesbian state workers.

The Group Insurance Commission, the body that administers health insurance programs for all state employees, was on record stating that extension of health benefits to domestic partners could not occur “until and unless Chapter 32A of the General Laws which defines eligible dependents, is amended by the Legislature.” Thus, a two-tiered system of benefits continued to be upheld—one for heterosexual employees and their families, and an inferior one for gay and lesbian employees in “spousal equivalent” relationships.

The grassroots efforts and coalition-building activities to advocate for equitable same-gender domestic partnership benefits included initiatives by state employee ad hoc groups, collective bargaining units, and community-based organizations such as Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) and the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, to address the gap in the state insurance laws (including the annual introduction of related bills to the legislature over approximately one dozen years); and the establishment of domestic-partnership registries in Provincetown, Boston, and Cambridge, allowing for those city employees to gain domestic-partnership benefits coverage.

Along the way, as roadblocks were circumvented, new obstacles appeared. For example, a 1999 court ruling found that Boston did not have the power to expand the reach of state insurance laws by including domestic partners in the group health system, rescinding benefits that had been provided. Also, GLAD noted in an overview of the state’s benefits, when such benefits were provided, “unlike benefits provided to an employee’s spouse, workplace benefits provided to an employee’s domestic partner are counted as taxable income to the employee.” The bottom line seemed to be that attempts to extend equal “family” benefits to gay and lesbian state workers was impossible without changing existing laws, and that efforts to impact legislation had repeatedly failed. It became increasingly clear that the route most likely to be successful would be one that was grounded in challenging the legal interpretations of existing antidiscrimination laws to allow Massachusetts gay and lesbian couples to marry legally.


Ultimately, the grassroots struggle in Massachusetts over this particular area of GLBT civil rights led to the 2003 Supreme Judicial Court decision to legalize same-gender marriage in Massachusetts. Although no longer governor, Weld had a hand in this as well: In 1996, he had appointed Justice Margaret H. Marshall, who wrote the majority opinion in the 2003 decision. This change in the state’s marriage laws, which went into effect May 17, 2004, not only allowed gay and lesbian state employees who were legally married to have equal access to health benefits but also set the stage for many other state-controlled rights to be extended to gay and lesbian citizens, and their legally recognized spouses.

Governor Weld’s signing of the executive order to grant lesbian and gay state workers bereavement and family leave rights set in motion a series of events that have kept the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at the forefront of the GLBT civil rights movement in the United States. His actions included establishing a Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, signing legislation to prohibit discrimination in Massachusetts public schools against students based on their sexual orientation (both of which gave rise to a groundbreaking, national model for creating a safe environment in schools for gay and lesbian students, including the establishment of a network of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs); expanding hate crimes and housing antidiscrimination laws to include gays and lesbians; and appointing out gay and lesbian state officials. These actions laid the groundwork for a state environment ideal for advancing gay and lesbian civil rights.

Although Executive Order 340 was very limited legally, its symbolic importance was significant. Governor Weld’s willingness to sign this and other gay-rights executive orders early in his tenure as governor established him as a maverick within his political party. As a “big tent” Republican, his positions in support of gay and lesbian civil rights and abortion rights brought him into the national spotlight and raised the ire of party conservatives. He was named “Hetero Hero” by the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine The Advocate, and he graced its cover in 1993. Employment rights;Massachusetts
Antidiscrimination laws;Massachusetts
Civil rights;Massachusetts

Further Reading

  • Hunter, Nan D., Courtney G. Joslin, and Sharon M. McGowan. The Rights of Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexuals, and Transgendered People (American Civil Liberties Union Handbook). 4th ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
  • Nava, Michael, and Robert Dawidoff. Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
  • Richards, David A. J. Identity and the Case for Gay Rights: Race, Gender, Religion as Analogies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  • Rimmerman, Craig A., Kenneth D. Wald, and Clyde Wilcox. The Politics of Gay Rights. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

April 27, 1953: U.S. President Eisenhower Prohibits Federal Employment of Lesbians and Gays

1972-1973: Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws

June 27, 1974: Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1978: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded

June 2, 1980: Canadian Gay Postal Workers Secure Union Protections

December 4, 1984: Berkeley Extends Benefits to Domestic Partners of City Employees

November 8, 1988: Oregon Repeals Ban on Antigay Job Discrimination

May 1, 1989: U.S. Supreme Court Rules Gender-Role Stereotyping Is Discriminatory

September 29, 1991: California Governor Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill

1994: Employment Non-Discrimination Act Is Proposed to U.S. Congress

April 2, 1998: Canadian Supreme Court Reverses Gay Academic’s Firing

July, 2003: Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring Lesbian and Gay Employees

July, 2003: Wal-Mart Adds Lesbians and Gays to Its Antidiscrimination Policy