With less than a month to go until the presidential election on November 6th, the pundit class, pollsters, or anyone with even a passing interest in American politics is understandably focused almost exclusively on the race for the White House and, to a lesser extent, control of the House and Senate. The economy, jobs, tax rates, and the debt have similarly framed the contest since the Republican primary in the early months of 2012, which ought to come as no surprise in a country slowly, but surely, making its way out of the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. There are, however, other critically important questions that will be put on ballots literally from Maine to Washington State; questions that touch on the most basic of human rights and will determine whether or not some Americans will continue to be treated as second-class citizens.
In Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, voters will be asked to weigh in on marriage equality for the LGBT community, albeit in different ways. Setting aside for a moment the questionable morality of subjecting the civil rights of a minority to the popular vote of a referendum, a brief rundown of the issues playing out in these four states will help situate my larger point in the proper context. In 2009, a ballot initiative successfully passed in Maine which repealed a bill passed by the legislature earlier that year granting same-sex couples the same marriage rights as their straight counterparts. This year, another initiative will be placed before voters, though this time, if passed, the measure will again grant marriage equality to all Mainers. In Maryland last spring, the state legislature passed, and Governor O’Malley signed, a same-sex marriage law which was subsequently challenged by gay marriage opponents who gathered over 100,000 signatures, enough to put the issue on the ballot in November, before the law is set to go into effect in 2013.
Virtually the same scenario was played out in Washington State this year as well with Governor Gregoire signing an equality bill that will not become official there until it too is approved by voters next month. Finally, Minnesotans will decide this year whether to amend the state constitution to define marriage as the exclusive union of one man and one woman.
While these referenda are significant primarily because of the immediate ramifications they will have for gays and lesbians in these states, the results will also have a tremendous impact on the national debate over same-sex marriage. Massachusetts was the first state to provide marriage equality after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2003 in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health that the state’s constitution required the recognition of same-sex marriages there. The response from opponents of marriage equality was to decry “judicial activism” which, so the narrative went, was imposing the redefinition of marriage against the will of the people and their elected representatives. Indeed, the following year, 11 states amended their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage, lest their courts follow Massachusetts’ example.
For the next five years, anti-equality groups such as the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) stuck with this narrative until Vermont became the first state to enact same-sex marriage legislatively in 2009, followed quickly by New Hampshire several months later. While most states still banned gay marriage, and indeed still do, this presented somewhat of a problem for groups such as NOM. In the case of these New England states, no longer could opponents of marriage equality claim that unelected judges were forcing this “social experiment” on their unsuspecting populations. These measures had been passed by elected officials who were accountable to voters, and these voters didn’t seem to mind.
Once again, therefore, the narrative had to be changed. Surely these state legislators were not accurately reflecting the will of the people, and so began the push for direct, popular votes on marriage rights. This strategy seemed to work as the Proposition 8 campaign in California successfully overturned a state court decision there which had briefly legalized same-sex marriage in the Golden State, as did the ballot initiative in Maine in 2009 discussed above. Despite the fact that in 2011, national polls for the first time showed a majority of Americans supporting equal marriage, NOM and other groups could still point to the fact that same-sex marriage had been rejected by voters every time it had been placed on the ballot.
And so we come to next month’s election. Four states will once again have the chance to vote on equality, three of which will have the opportunity to directly extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians. The polls are promising, as support for the pro-equality bills in Maine, Maryland and Washington has been hovering above the 50% mark. None of these initiatives are guaranteed to pass, though. Polls in California in 2008 suggested that Prop. 8 was headed to defeat, only to be passed by a razor-thin 52-48 margin. The point, though, is that a victory in any one of these four battles will have major implications for the national debate. The last rhetorical bastion of NOM and their supporters will have been breached as the people directly affirm that gays and lesbians should be treated equally under the law. True, a victory for marriage equality at the ballot box even in all four states will not end the discrimination that is written into the laws of 41 others. But it will be a milestone along what I believe is the inevitable march towards full equality for LGBT people everywhere in America.