Welcome to the new normal. As the results trickled in on Election Night this year and it became clear that the national electorate — or at least enough of it — was rejecting the Tea Party and conservative dogma, re-electing President Barack Obama and adding to the Democrats’ Senate majority, something else was percolating, something the election night pundits were not discussing.
Marriage-equality ballot measures were winning in three states — Maine, Maryland and Washington — while a fourth gay-themed initiative — Minnesota’s attempt to enshrine anti-gay discrimination in its state constitution — was going down to defeat.
What a difference four years makes.
In 2008, even as Barack Obama was rolling up an impressive national victory and carrying California by a wide margin, voters in the Golden State chose to overrule their own state courts and ban same-sex marriage. More recently, in May of this year, North Carolina voters backed a state constitutional change banning same-sex marriage, which only reinforced its statutory ban.
The national mood has been shifting since 2004, when George Bush and the Republican Party used a collection of anti-gay ballot initiatives to boost conservative turnout and win at the ballot box. Since then, just three states have endorsed bans (Arizona approved one in 2009 after defeating a more harshly worded ballot measure three years earlier), while numerous others have moved toward marriage equality.
Before the Nov. 6 vote, six states and the District of Columbia had legalized same-sex marriage, three by court action (Massachusetts, Iowa and Connecticut) three legislatively (New York, Vermont and New Hampshire). We can now add Maine, Maryland and Washington to the mix.
Maine is an interesting case. The state legislature had legalized gay marriage in 2009, but was overruled by a statewide referendum that November. The LGBT community and its supporters immediately got to work.
As the Bangor Daily News reports, advocates began planning for a 2012 ballot initiative. That meant collecting signatures and reframing the issue as one of commitment and love, as opposed to one of fear and paranoia.
“Supporters from Portland to Presque Isle thought that truth and love are more powerful than fear and deception,” Matt McTighe, campaign manager of Mainers United for Marriage, said in a victory speech reported in the Portland Press Herald.
In New Jersey, the state Supreme Court has been pushing the Legislature to legalize same-sex marriage and legislation was passed by a Democratic Legislature. It was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who said he preferred that voters make the decision at the ballot box.
I remain skeptical of ballot initiatives for same-sex marriage, even though it is clear that the public mood has shifted. As New Jersey state Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, the first openly gay member of the state Legislature, has said repeatedly, we shouldn’t be putting civil rights on the ballot. It sets a terrible precedent, allowing the majority to determine the rights of the minority.
But it also is clear from the public polling that New Jersey voters have come around. They have been telling pollsters that they support the right of their gay and lesbian neighbors to marry and would likely support them at the ballot box.
The unfortunate reality is that the state might not get to marriage equality without a referendum, given Christie’s opposition and the likelihood that he will be in office through 2017. Pragmatism may have to trump principle in this case.
One thing is clear, though. There no longer is a consensus on the issue nationally and, as with so many issues, we have fractured along regional lines. The states of the Old South have been pretty united in their opposition, while all of New England (save Rhode Island) has legalized same-sex marriage. New York has legalized it and Rhode Island, New Jersey and Delaware allow civil unions (marriage in all but name, and badly flawed as an alternative) along with relatively strong anti-discrimination laws. That means most of the Northeast (aside from Pennsylvania) has come around.
Advocates have a lot of work to do, but seems pretty clear that to win passage of marriage equality we will need to chip away state by state and region by region until the momentum is so strong even a state like Mississippi has no choice but to come along.
Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email email@example.com; blog, kaletbog.com; Twitter, @newspoet41.
From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2012
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