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The Warrior

Arline IsaacsonTufts graduate Arline Isaacson has been on the front lines of some of the most critical political battles for the gay and lesbian community.


It was past midnight at the Massachusetts State House in February 2004 after several hours of intense debate. The matter at hand? A proposed amendment to the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

Arline Isaacson was tired. Everyone in the building was. But for the Tufts graduate, who has served as co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus since 1986, her weariness came on the heels of two decades of fighting for the political rights of gays and lesbians like herself -- to not be fired unjustly, to be allowed to be foster parents and, now, to have the right to marry, the most difficult battle she had ever faced.

It was in this setting that Isaacson ran into a legislator she knew -- she'll call him Joe -- who was opposed to same-sex marriage. He was one of many legislators with whom she had a good personal relationship despite his opposition to what she was advocating.

Isaacson decided to ask Joe a question. "We're both tired," she recalls the conversation on a recent morning. "The defenses are down when you're tired."

"I know you're a good and decent guy," she recalls saying to Joe. "But you have no trouble placing no constraints on straight people marrying no matter what kind of person they are. You let thieves marry, you allow rapists to marry, you allow a man who has had three families and three sets of kids and abandoned each and every one of them to get married again if he wants." She rattled off various instances of marriage being taken lightly -- involving Larry King, Britney Spears, "Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire?" -- that, while cavalier, are completely legal.

Arline Isaacson

Isaacson poses at the Massachusetts State House.

"If you let all those people get married," she asked Joe, "why do you draw the line at us?"

As Isaacson recalls it, Joe met her question with silence, unable to look her in the eye. "I'm going to have to get back to you on that one," he eventually replied.

"At that moment, I knew he was going to vote with us eventually," says Isaacson. "How do you respond to a question like that? There's no answer that's reasonable. And the fact that he knew it spoke to the decency he had."

Ultimately, Joe voted against the amendment to ban gay marriage. "It is the most wonderful thing to see someone changing their view because it's not an easy thing to do for anyone on anything," says Isaacson.

The Accidental Lobbyist

Isaacson's tireless efforts for the past quarter-century on behalf of the gay and lesbian community in Massachusetts are somewhat of a happy accident. Growing up, everyone told Isaacson she would make a great lawyer. But at Tufts, she decided to follow her interest in the sciences, a field she regarded as pure and certain, not tainted or "ephemeral" like she believed politics to be. After a few internships, however, she observed that science was rife with politics, as well. Still, her time at Tufts informed the work she would one day assume.

"Tufts changed my life. Being at a school where politics was important and there was a culture that permitted and encouraged it [was valuable]."

— Arline Isaacson

"Tufts changed my life," says Isaacson. "Being at a school where politics was important and there was a culture that permitted and encouraged it [was valuable]."

But as she approached the end of her time at Tufts in 1977, what kept her in Boston was not a job or an advanced degree—it was a woman. "We do for love, what we might not otherwise do," says Isaacson.

After holding various jobs post-graduation, one day in 1983, she volunteered for a Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus Lobby Day. "'What the hell,'" she recalls thinking at the time. "'It's just one day.'" (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos by Melody Ko, University Photography

This story originally ran on Mar. 31, 2008.