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No to Gay Marriage in Maine, Yes to Domestic Partners in Washington State

Last week, the results of two votes on gay marriage painted a clear picture of the current mood on the topic.

by
B. Daniel Blatt

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November 11, 2009 - 12:25 am
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This suggests that gay activists should shift their strategy, pushing for recognition of civil unions in the political realm while in their private conclaves considering the seemingly intractable opposition to same-sex marriage. In the wake of the passage last fall of Proposition 8 in California, activists held numerous meetings across the Golden State — including a much-ballyhooed “Equality Summit” in Los Angeles — which appeared on the surface to do just that. But as participants pondered the meaning of that successful state initiative to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage in the state constitution, activists and leaders of the various gay organizations remained focused on their goal of “marriage equality.”

Most seemed reluctant to consider what supporters of the successful ballot initiative understood by the word “marriage.”

Indeed, despite much handwringing and many meetings, there has been little change in the gay leadership. With the notable exception of Patrick Sammon, former president of Log Cabin Republicans, not a single national gay leader has stepped down since Proposition 8 passed. (And Sammon resigned for personal reasons unrelated to the election results.) Even local leaders in California kept their jobs. Geoff Kors remains at the helm of Equality California despite growing criticism of his leadership from gay people across the Golden State’s political spectrum.

Gay leaders have shifted their tactics a bit, but their overall strategy and rhetoric have remained the same. It thus seems doubtful that last week’s elections will lead to the changes expected after the success last fall of Proposition 8.

The Maine results should be sobering for those who believe state recognition of gay marriage is the immediate be-all and end-all of the gay movement. Citizens there did not just rise up against a state court removing the matter from the legislature. Advocates of Proposition 8 reminded Golden State voters last fall that four unelected judges overturned the will of four million citizens. By contrast, Maine voters vetoed a law passed by their own elected legislators.

Their opposition is not just to activist judges, but to using the term “marriage” to describe same-sex relationships.

But the results in Washington State, which is politically similar to the Pine Tree State (both states delivered 57% of their votes to Barack Obama last fall), should be heartening to those who want to see governments recognize the changing social attitudes toward gay people. Americans are increasingly willing to acknowledge same-sex unions, even if they refuse to call such unions “marriage.”

The debate, it now seems, is about the meaning of a word. And the task for gay marriage advocates is to figure out why many Americans, even those harboring no animus against gay people, continue to define that word, marriage, by sexual difference.

At the same time, while it appears highly unlikely that voters will approve state recognition of same-sex marriages in the near future, there is growing evidence that they do support state recognition of civil unions. That may not be the result some gay activists wish to see, but it is a mark of progress and positive social change. And something that would hardly have been possible or even conceivable just ten years ago.

*In 2006, Arizona became “the first state in the Union to reject a ballot initiative aimed at preventing gay marriage” when they narrowly rejected Proposition 107. That measure was considered both too draconian and too complex, as it would have barred jurisdiction in the Grand Canyon State from granting legal status to domestic partnerships. So, while voters rejected a complete ban on rejection of domestic partnerships, they did not vote to sanction state recognition of such unions as did Washington State voters last week. In 2008, Arizona voters approved Proposition 102, which would amended the state constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

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B. Daniel Blatt blogs at GayPatriot.
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