While courts and state legislatures have legalized same sex marriage in the past, whenever the issue came before the people in a referendum it failed — 32 times in all. Here in Maine the legislature approved same sex marriage in 2009, only to have it overturned by a people’s veto that November by a margin of 53 to 47. At that time I wrote that same sex marriage had been “postponed.” Social conservatives complained that the courts and legislatures were responding to special interests while the people clearly opposed giving marriage rights to gays.
On November 6, 2012 the tide turned.
In Maine, Maryland and Washington State voters approved legalizing same sex marriage by votes of 53-47 in Maine and 52-48 in both Maryland and Washington. An effort to pass a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage failed in Minnesota 48-51. Beyond that Wisconsin elected Tammy Baldwin to the US Senate. She will be the first openly gay Senator. It does not appear that her sexuality was an issue in the contest.
To be sure, in much of the country approval of gay marriage would have no chance. However the writing is on the wall – it’s only a matter of time until gay marriage is as controversial as interracial marriage. It’s a true sign that tolerance is on the rise in America; one of the last groups to suffer legal and accepted bigotry and discrimination are finally being recognized as equal.
Thinking back, it’s amazing how different things are now than from when I was in college. The first time I recall encountering someone who I knew was gay was in German class in high school. He was obviously a character (his name was Randy, I can’t recall his last name) and he had spent time in Germany. He helped me ask a girl to the prom by distracting the girl’s twin sister. The girl turned me down and Randy seemed genuinely disappointed. Although he never openly said he was gay, we’d chat all the time in German class and I was pretty sure he was “one of those.”
Any doubts I had about his sexuality were put aside the next year when Walter Cronkite reported that my old high school had made the national news by having a gay couple attend prom. I quickly recognized that it was Randy from my German class and while a lot of people were appalled (they needed police protection due to threats), I thought it was a cool way for Sioux Falls Lincoln to make the news. Would a gay couple going to a high school dance get reported on the national media these days (I mean, that was Walter Cronkite!)?
When the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared same sex marriage legal in 2003, many people were shocked. Social conservatives were convinced that there would be mass outrage. In an on line discussion board one argued that if this wasn’t stopped there would be a Constitutional Amendment within a year to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. He couldn’t comprehend that “normal” folk would stand for such a thing.
Yet slowly other courts and some state legislatures followed suit. Still it remained an issue that couldn’t win a public referendum. Even with polls showing a radical increase in acceptance of gay marriage to well over 50%, opposition played on fears and got people to the polls to stymie efforts to either pass gay marriage rights, or at times to overturn those passed by the legislature.
In 2012 that changed. A look at demographics suggest the change will continue. In Maryland, exit polls showed 70% of people under age 29 supported gay marriage. For age 30 to 44 it was 60%. People over 45 narrowly opposed it, and those over 65 voted against it by two to one. Simply, opposition to gay marriage is doomed to die out. Today’s youth don’t view homosexuality the same way as their elders.
It will take awhile for this to spread throughout the US. After all, in parts of the deep south interracial marriage is still seen as something unnatural and unholy. Once whites and blacks could marry, they argued, it wouldn’t be long until people started marrying animals. But people with signs yelling “perversion, bestiality, and sodomy” at gays get rolling eyes from youth and are seen as the functional equivalent of knights of the Ku Klux Klan – a sad group of bigots who fear people who are different than themselves.
Those who once saw this as a threat to societal norms are slowly realizing that allowing gays to marry expands family values and reasserts the importance of a committed relationship. The youth of today, connected via social media and the internet, already are comfortable with difference. The idea that a couple can not marry because of their sexuality is seen as being as irrational as not allowing marriage between red heads and blonds.
Marriage as an institution has constantly been redefined through the millennia. There is no age old standard definition; the idea that it is primarily about love is relatively recent. Marriage is a social construct, defined to reflect the customs and norms of the culture in which it is found. Expanding marriage rights to gays shows that our culture is becoming more tolerant and acceptant of difference.
There is still a long way to go, but the elections of 2012 mark an important step on the road to increased liberty and tolerance. That is worth celebrating. That this happens the same year an African American gets re-elected President in a contest against a Mormon in which neither race nor religion are prominent issues is something we can be proud of!