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.