Same Sex Marriage in Maine

Maine made history yesterday as the fifth state to legalize gay marriage.  It’s certain to face a vote by the full electorate since Maine has a “people’s veto” option.   And, if the vote comes this fall, when no other major elections are taking place, the anti-gay marriage group could probably muster the support necessary to overturn the legislation, since they would be the ones most motivated to show up at the polls.   Still, that almost certainly would only be a bump in the path towards legal gay marriage down the line — and it might even survive a people’s veto.

What amazes me is how quickly this issue has evolved.  Less than a decade ago it seemed only people considered ‘radical’ were actively pushing for gay marriage.   That was seen as a bit too much.  Civil unions were the liberal catch phrase of the day.  Politicians could be in favor of civil unions, noting that gays could be married in church ceremonies, that state civil unions would function like marriages and grant all the same rights, but it just wouldn’t be marriage.

That seemed a perfect compromise.  Tell the moderates that ‘we aren’t messing with the institution of marriage’ but tell the progressives that ‘we are allowing the functional equivalent of marriage.’   The hard core right wouldn’t even accept civil unions, but their votes are pretty set in stone anyway.

In fact, Governor Baldacci had said he supported civil unions and would veto a gay marriage bill, but yet signed it yesterday.  Apparently the changing political winds around this issue caught him off guard, he was uncommitted until the end as to whether he would sign.

So what happened?   Why did gay marraige suddenly not only become ‘mainstream,’ but with New Hampshire set to vote to legalize it, something gaining steam?

One explanation is the ‘tipping point’ notion — support builds and suddenly you reach a ‘tipping point’ where everything turns around.  You can find tipping points in looking at public opinion on civil rights for blacks, the Vietnam war, the Iraq war, and some think we may be nearing one concerning legalization of marijuana.  To an extent that’s true.  But it’s sort of a non-explanation — the question is why did this suddenly ‘tip.’

A major reason could be that it suddenly became less strange to think of same sex marriages.   When the Vermont court first mandated that they be recognized, it was seen as bizarre, weird, and almost unthinkable to a lot of people.  But gays got married.  The first marriage my two sons attended was two women getting married.    The kids were too young to really understand marriage (Dana was only six months at the time), but across the country more people were invited to, and attended, gay weddings.   It wasn’t just in Vermont either.  This marriage took place in Maine, and was conducted by a member of the Christian clergy (I forget which denomination).   It wasn’t “legal” — I’m sure the legal niceties were taken care of over in Vermont — but it was a real ceremony.

As people witnessed such events, and as gays increasingly decided to undertake marriage vows, suddenly it wasn’t so weird any more.  To the generation coming of age at this time it will always seem normal — they’re used to it, and even many conservatives see opposition to same sex marriages as reflecting the thinking of a previous era.   In twenty years the idea that gays were so recently not be allowed to marry will probably seem as strange as the recognition now that not that long ago blacks could not marry whites.

Second, there is no rational reason to oppose same sex marriage.   Does the fact a gay couple down the road have a state endorsed marriage change anything?   Up to now they could have a religious marriage ceremony, exchange rings, live together, be protected by domestic partner laws, and call each other a spouse.  None of that behavior will change, there will just be a piece of paper on file at the court house making it state-certified.

There are basically two reasons to oppose same sex marriage.  The first is bigotry, which usually entails an authoritarian personality.  Someone doesn’t like the idea of people being homosexual, and wants to try to make sure it never gets accepted.  Bigotry could also be caused by fear — will gays corrupt their children, change society, or somehow undo American culture.   That so-called homophobia drives a lot of the opposition.  Most opponents of gay marriage are neither bigots nor homophobes.  Some are gay themselves.  They make a more reasonable argument that marriage has been a time honored union of a man and a woman, and that giving state sanction to this practice represents an attempt to socially engineer culture, which they consider misguided and dubious.

I do not doubt the sincerity of that argument, and respect it.  I think, though, that it’s wrong.  What we are seeing is quite literally a culture shift, homosexuality is considered acceptable by more than just a ‘liberal fringe’ or counter culture types.   Average folk, many religious, working class, and moderate to conservative in their views, are starting to think that it makes sense to allow gays to marry.    There is a growing consensus that homosexuality is not chosen, but part of ones’ genetic make up (or tendencies may be in the genes).  Denying rights to people on that basis is much like denying them on the basis of skin color.

Beyond that, the religious right, or social conservative movement in America is weakening rapidly.   Many evangelicals are taking more moderate stances on social issues, and emphasizing love, charity, and good works more than a stern index finger pointed at society’s supposed moral flaws.   While the 80s saw Jerry Falwell and the ‘moral majority’ condemning society’s sexual deviation and decadence, with Pat Robertson accusing lesbians of being akin to witches, the current religious leaders — much less well known — underplay such rhetoric.   The times have changed.

Finally, liberalism is back.   It’s OK to be liberal or progressive now, Barack Obama has made the left cool once again.  Rush Limbaugh’s audience has aged, and the right lacks a hip, cool, or popular focus of attention.   Part of that comes from the debacle in Iraq and the economic crisis that came from the policies of the last quarter century (bipartisan policies, quite often).   People want change.  Part of that is generational culture shift, as the people born in the post-Cold War era start coming of age.

What happens in Maine as the process moves forward is still unknown.  And I doubt same sex marriage is going to come to Alabama or Georgia any time soon.   But even compared to the reaction to same sex marriage in California last year, which I blogged about almost exactly a year ago, changes  in public attitudes have been swift — it does feel like a tipping point has been reached.  Don’t be surprised if within a few short years same sex marriage isn’t approved over much of the country.  If a tipping point is crossed, things change fast.

  1. #1 by Lee on May 7, 2009 - 12:40

    We were pretty excited by this! We were allowed to marry in 2004 here in MA but my wife has always wanted to retire to Maine. We have been together since 1978 so we married on our anniversary of when we committed ourselves to building a life together.

    I think what has helped is that as gay marriages have slowly become more common, people can see that we don’t really threaten traditional marriages in any way. I just have the right to make the same kinds of decisions (think medical emergency in a hospital for instance) that my straight married friends can also make.

    However I live for the day when it is country wide–I particularly dream of this at tax time. LOL You would not believe how complicated it is to be married in your state and single for the feds at tax time! LOL

  2. #2 by Josh on May 7, 2009 - 13:53

    I think we should be careful when using the word “bigot”. Where I live, those (particularly conservative Christians) who seem THE most active against gay marriage are the ones who are also the most kind toward homosexual folks during normal, everyday encounters. If we really got to know some of those “bigots”, I think we would find some of them to be decent individuals. As a whole, I believe those who are against gay marriage are much different than those who opposed equal rights for African Americans in the 50’s and 60’s.

    Also, we are all imperfect. If we were to reveal what was truly in our hearts, I’m sure we would find some bigotry in everyone.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on May 7, 2009 - 14:04

    I think the people you describe, Josh, are in the second group of opponents. Notice that the bigots were only one group. Note this sentence in my post:

    “Most opponents of gay marriage are neither bigots nor homophobes.” Still, I see a lot of similarities to this and the equal rights movements of the past era. A lot of decent individuals similarly opposed much of the civil rights movement agenda too — it seemed to go too far, and questioned the basics of American culture to that time.

    Lee, so the feds don’t recognize all state sanctioned marriages? I didn’t know that. Hard to say what will happen in Maine this time around — there will almost certainly be a referendum. I think the momentum is heading in the right direction though.

  4. #4 by Josh on May 7, 2009 - 16:48

    Thanks for the quick reply. I see what your saying, but it seems to me that the majority of folks on both sides of the marriage issue have not “gone too far.” I guess that’s why I see your link to the past civil rights movement as somewhat weak.

    By the way, I understand that you believe opponents of same-sex marriage are not bigots. 🙂
    I guess I was just speaking generally about folks who like to call others “bigots” just because they merely disagree with the views of others (which I know is not the case with you).

  5. #5 by henitsirk on May 13, 2009 - 05:02

    I’ve never understood the opposition to gay people getting married. I would think that it would be pretty telling that the “institution” of marriage could be so threatened by that! I challenge anyone opposed to gay marriage to look at a committed, long-term, loving relationship and tell me why that threatens anyone.

    I can kind of understand that some people, for example, might not want to give any sort of support to gay people because they believe God has said homosexuality is a sin. That’s their belief system, their moral universe. But then I wonder why it’s an issue — no one is saying that gay marriage has to happen in church! No one is forcing any religion to change their moral beliefs; they are just saying that in the public arena, we have a commitment in this country to equal rights. I guess I’m a bit libertarian — if it doesn’t harm anyone, they why should we resist it?

    I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my joining the Lutheran church. They are very clear that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, and so they think it is wrong. I guess that’s just something about which I will never agree. It’s not exactly a central doctrine, so that helps, I suppose.

  6. #6 by Scott Erb on May 13, 2009 - 18:30

    I like Jon Stewart’s take (that’s the one TV show I do watch consistently). Now Maine’s lobster festival is only the second worst violation of Leviticus in Maine. Homosexuality is only really condemned in the same part of the bible that deals with arcane rules (like touching women who are having their period and stuff like that). It’s not a big issue in the Bible, and arguably as easy to see as obsolete as other parts of Leviticus. But, of course, people tend to use religion to justify their own whims.

  7. #7 by henitsirk on May 13, 2009 - 18:50

    Unfortunately proscription of homosexuality is not only limited to Old Testament law but also appears in New Testament gospel, and so gets more weight and isn’t quite as obsolete as we might like! Certainly it’s not a big issue compared with “love one another”…but people sure do like to judge others.

    Jon Stewart cracks me up. I’m looking forward to getting a new computer just so I can finally watch his stuff online (can’t get the latest Flash player on my laptop, it’s so old).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: