Last night by a margin of about 53-47% the “Yes on One” group seeking to overturn the state legislature’s approval of same sex marriage scored a victory. What might have been an historic vote to allow same sex marriage turned out to be just another setback.
Reading Facebook last night and this morning as the results became clear, the disappointment among so many students (and faculty) was evident. Many said they were “ashamed of Maine,” wondered “how people could be so bigoted and closed minded,” and found it hard not to “hate the haters” who insult and degrade a segment of the population for no reason. “Gay marriage will harm no one,” one person remarked, “but not allowing it harms families and loving couples.” Many of these people were the same ones who were thrilled one year ago today when Barack Obama won an historic election for the Presidency. Within a year they learn that political activism can inspire great highs and great lows. So what happened, what does this election mean?
First, as I noted awhile back in the post Culture Shift, the very fact this election was so close is a sign that the world of 2009 is far different than the world of 1999, when Mainers rejected a law to end discrimination against gays in work, housing, and other similar circumstances. At that time, a same sex marriage referendum would have had no chance. The gay rights measure did get passed in a referendum a few years later, and its worth remembering how upset so many people were when the first attempt was defeated. The game gets played again.
Go back even farther — though not much farther — and you can find a time when interracial marraige was seen with the same kind of disdain by a large part of the population that same sex marriage is today. Yet over time that stigma slowly changed, and now we have a President who had a black father and a white mother. That slow change, of course, came from political activism that suffered numerous setbacks, but yet slowly moved forward.
Not only do cultures change, but once change starts it’s hard to hold back. Anti-gay efforts have become less ambitious in recent years. In the 70s they wanted to fire gay teachers or anyone who helped them, in the 90s they wanted to stop civil unions, and this year the “Yes on One” people claimed that civil unions were a legitimate alternative to same-sex marriage. Each battle is hard fought, such as the non-discrimination battles a decade ago, but movement remains inexorably towards equality. Especially when one takes into account changing values amongst young people, I suspect within decades we’ll not only have same sex marriage, but an openly gay President. People will look back at this form of discrimination the same way that we now look at bans on interracial marriage as odd.
Patrice in a comment to yesterday’s post ended with a five word sentiment many share: “I just don’t get it.” How can people be so cruel to others in our society, denying them equality, and acting as if their sexual orientation makes them inferior, evil, dangerous or second class? That seems so profoundly ignorant and hateful. And, to be sure, there are bigots out there whose homophobia and hatred eats them from within. It’s tempting to hate them back, but better to pity them.
That does not describe 53% of Maine, however. Most who voted yes are not hateful bigots. The “Yes on One” people approach the issue from a whole different perspective. They are less concerned with the individual than with the collective cultural identity of the people. Conservatism is at base a collectivist ideology seeing society as a kind of organic whole, held together by cultural norms and traditions. True, in the hyper-capitalist United States conservatives have also embraced free market economics, creating a kind of schizophrenic collectivist libertarianism (whose consequences were seen this election in the 23rd district of NewYork). But real social conservatives are at base worried about society over the individual.
To them, marriage is not just a legal status, but a social institution built around the family which has shaped and defined the core of human existence since the beginning of recorded history. And, though some cultures have embraced polygamy, child brides, and other things we abhor, marriage has never been associated with homosexuality until recently. To them, this is a radical jolt to their understanding of the world and how it operates, and seems to be an unreasonable effort to change society in order to ‘appease’ the interests of a minority — a minority they often think are acting ‘sinfully’ or ‘unnaturally.’ I know many such conservatives who are not hateful people, and who grimace when told the impact their view has on gays — their intent is not to hurt. They see same sex marriage as a radical upending of tradition and what they consider the natural order of things. It seems like a minority is trying to change how their world operates.
Those are legitimate perspectives. One can’t just dismiss those who want to protect traditions as they know them by calling them names or labeling them bigots. Most of them are being presented with perspectives that they did not grow up with, and which seem strange to them. Some will never give up their opposition to change, but many if not most can over time be persuaded.
What the “No on One” campaign did so well is they humanized the issue. They showed same sex couples and their families, and moved away from abstract reasoning to show those who are skeptical the human impact of discrimination. They had lobstermen, pastors, Catholics, the elderly, and numerous people from every day life in their images and commercials. This wasn’t about “changing marriage,” it was about letting other loving couples have marriage as well. Traditional marriage was not under threat, traditional marriage is what same sex couples want.
So despite my disappointment — I really thought the ‘No’ side would win — I feel like this was still a small movement forward. Even Ari Fleischer, former Press Secretary to President George W. Bush, said that while he opposes same sex marriage, he believes the culture is clearly heading that direction. Civil rights movements always meet resistance, cultures change slowly, and there will always be those who use fear tactics and predictions of dire consequences to try to convince people not to let go of the status quo. But things are changing. And ultimately, I don’t think those who won the election yesterday will be able to stop the tide. I would not be surprised if within five years same sex marriage is legal in Maine, and within 20 years young people will think it odd that it ever was not.
Other elections: Though I’ll have more on those and what Obama needs to do moving forward in coming days, the surprise victory of Owens in NY -23 is a gut punch to the “teaparty” movement, and made what was overall a bad evening for the Democrats not quite so bad. They lost two Governorships, but gained a seat in Congress. Still, I was hoping for the second year in a row to be writing about an historic election. That’s not been canceled, just postponed.