Beyond the blue: Why marriage won this time

Evan Wolfson

Was the sweep of victories for same-sex marriage on four state ballots November 6 a reflection of American society’s evolution toward acceptance of gay citizens or a lucky convergence of strong Democratic turnout in Democratic leaning states?

There was something dramatically different about the marriage votes this time. For the past eight years, voters in 32 states voted to ban gay couples from obtaining marriage licenses. As recently as May, 61 percent of voters in North Carolina chose to ban same-sex marriage through a constitutional amendment. The vote prompted National Organization for Marriage leader Brian Brown to proclaim that President Obama’s “embrace of same-sex marriage will help ensure he becomes a one-term president” because marriage equality has never been successful with voters, “not in a single state, not at any time.” Not even in blue states, he said. And Brown predicted Obama would lose Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.

Brown was wrong on every count. Obama won re-election, he won Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, and Nevada, and marriage equality won success in four blue states. But Brown wasn’t the only one surprised by the four marriage equality victories. Many in the LGBT community were surprised, too.

“Who would have thought we would win all four? Nobody!” said Lorri Jean, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center.

In the post-election analysis, a New York Times article November 11 said, “A rapid shift in public opinion is bolstering [the same-sex marriage equality] cause as more people grow used to the idea of same-sex marriage and become acquainted with openly gay people and couples.”

A Minnesota Post article gave credit to the fact that 79 percent of young voters in Minnesota voted against the proposed ban of same-sex marriage, a much higher percentage than voters overall in the state (54 percent). A Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civil Learning and Engagement report supported that idea. Younger voters in 2012 were much more liberal and included a larger percentage of self-identified gay people than the youth vote did in 2008. And their fraction of the overall number of people who went to the polls increased by one percent (from 18 to 19) between 2008 and 2012.

Articles in the Kennebec Journal in Maine credited a “progressive” electorate that cares about fairness and pro-marriage equality supporters “who learned from their defeat” in a 2009 ballot fight “and made a concerted effort to win votes outside the state’s progressive urban and suburban districts.”

The Baltimore Sun said the passage of Question 6 in Maryland could be “traced in part” to the involvement of the faith community, in particular to the fact that two African American Southern Baptist ministers chose to “lend their names, faces and reputations to a campaign on an issue that remains highly controversial in their community.”

On the other side of the country, the Rev. Debra Peevey, Faith Director of the Washington United for Marriage Campaign, said the marriage equality campaigns in all four states had concerted efforts in place to counter powerful arguments used against marriage equality in the passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008.

“Faith was a big pushback on Prop 8,” said Peevey. “Catholics and Mormons were able to make the claim that the faith position was to be against same-sex marriage. But, this time, we met that and overcame. In all four states, we had a lot of people of faith holding conversations in person and at the phone banks, even knocking on doors so that they could share with people, ‘I’m a person of faith, and I’m voting to approve Ref 74’.”

NOM’s Brown and his supporters offered a variety of reasons why they lost on the four measures this time. One NOM official, Thomas Peter told PBS News Hour that many opponents of same-sex marriage had grown “complacent” from all their previous victories. But their key explanations were that the four states were “very liberal” Democratic states and the other side had much more money.

Patrick Egan, a public opinion specialist and professor at New York University, says there’s no doubt pro-same-sex marriage supporters were fighting on” very friendly territory” in Maine, Maryland, and Washington. And 53 percent of the voters in Minnesota who went to the polls voted for President Obama and either voted against the amendment to ban same-sex marriage or left the issue blank. (In Minnesota, a constitutional amendment requires that a majority of voters actually check “Yes” in order for the measure to pass. But even if all the blank votes were counted in the “Yes” column, the measure still failed to achieve that majority.)

Most longtime LGBT civil rights supporters suggest that these explanations represent only the surface of a very deep, multi-faceted foundation to November 6’s historic victories.

Gay Democratic activist David Mixner, who helped marshal unprecedented LGBT support for Bill Clinton’s first victory for the presidency, credits youth but sees it as two-way street: More young LGBT people have come out to their friends and family in recent years, and there’s been an “influx of straight energy into the LGBT movement” from a younger generation – a generation that has more knowledge and less fear about sexual orientation differences.

“By coming out, more people know LGBT people individually and personally, and the more willing they are to support our freedom and equality,” said Mixner, of upstate New York. “And young people challenged their parents and said it’s not fair. This influx of straight energy into LGBT movement is something we haven’t seen the likes of since … the sixties.”

Peevey, an Arizona resident who also volunteered in the work against Proposition 8 in California in 2008, said the Prop 8 campaign “changed a lot of stuff everywhere.”

When Catholic bishops in Washington launched a “very aggressive” campaign in October to insert bulletins against Referendum 74 in every Catholic church in the state, the Washington United for Marriage group was ready, said Peevey.

“This amazing coalition of Catholics for Marriage Equality in Washington made a counter bulletin insert to every one of the bishops’ inserts –and in English and Spanish.”

And when opponents of same-sex marriage in Washington launched their eleventh-hour television ad aimed at parents of young children –a tactic that had caught pro-marriage equality groups “off-guard” in California in 2008 —Washington United for Marriage was ready with its response.

“This time, all four [state marriage equality] campaigns were totally prepared for it,” said Peevey. “The day the ad came out, we had the [Washington] state superintendent of public instruction quoted as saying it wasn’t true.  Teachers were up in a television ad the next day saying there is no such curriculum being taught, never has been. We had editorials saying it wasn’t true.”

Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marry organization, said the pro-marriage equality groups “worked hard to lay the kind of groundwork that is necessary for campaigns to win.”

That included numerous conversations with President Obama and members of his administration that eventually led to the president telling the nation, in a nationally televised prime time interview that he supports allowing gay couples to marry. And it included raising “early money” that enabled campaigns to hire staff, set up infrastructure, and even make earlier television airtime at discount by paying for it months in advance.

Wolfson’s group estimates the pro-marriage equality groups spent about $36 million on their campaigns. Brown estimated his group spent $5.5 million.

Wolfson, who has been working on the marriage equality issue since its first serious eruption in Hawaii over an historic lawsuit there in 1993, said the four campaigns November 6 benefited from the “cumulative effect of persuasion and conversations” with the public.

“It’s the number one most important factor –to help people think things through and create the climate” toward acceptance, said Wolfson.

And part of that climate change has come from having same-sex couples being able to obtain marriage licenses since 2004 in Massachusetts, and subsequently five other states and the District of Columbia. Following enactment of the vote November 6, the total will stand at nine states and the District of Columbia, as well as 14 other countries.

“We’ve won and it has added to the evidence that people can see with their own eyes,” said Wolfson. It is evidence, he said, that “refutes the scare tactics, it resolves the discomfort in favor of fairness. Families are helped and no one is hurt. All that is up from zero a decade ago, and it has allowed people to rise to a higher level of understanding and support.”

5 Responses to Beyond the blue: Why marriage won this time

  1. Almost every article that mentions the 2012 referendum in North Carolina seems to contain the same error. This article is no exception. The referendum was sold as a constitutional amendment to prevent courts or the legislature from legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. The media and the voters seem to have swallowed this line. But it was actually a stealth amendment. In reality it has banned same-sex marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and any other form of marriage-lite that the legislature might want to create.

    The sad think about this referendum is that most voters would have opposed the referendum if they knew its true scope. Instead they passed it.

  2. Jay says:

    I beg to disagree with Bruce Robinson above. The entire campaign in North Carolina was badly bungled by our side precisely because all we emphasized was the “collateral damage” done by the North Carolina amendment. The people of North Carolina did not care. They were hell-bent on banning same-sex marriage and were just as happy to ban civil unions and anything else, including out of wedlock relationships with heterosexuals. Instead of educating people about same-sex couples, our campaign emphasized over and over how the amendment was “too broad” and would hurt heterosexuals, in effect saying that it was proper to punish homosexuals.

    In any case, it is unlikely we could have won in North Carolina. What is missing in the analysis of the November 6 election is the fact that opposition to same-sex marriage is becoming a regional marker, with support for same-sex marriage in the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast, but strong opposition in the South and the red states generally. In this sense, Brown is right.

    Had there been referenda on same-sex marriage in South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, Tennessee, Montana, Idaho, Utah, North Dakota, and South Dakota, we would have lost in a landslide. We probably would have lost in Florida, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. We may have won in Colorado, Michigan and Virginia. We probably would have won in Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, Delaware, and Illinois.

    One reason we need a national policy guaranteeing equal rights is that it will be another twenty years if then before die-hard states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Oklahoma will treat its citizens fairly.

  3. Francois says:

    Three points: First Wolfson is totally correct in his answer to why marriage won this time but he is too modest as to the reasons why his reasons are correct.

    Please notice the headline is most significant for what it does NOT say: it does not say “the reasons why [gay/same-sex] marriage won this time.” That statement testifies to Wolfson’s first major contribution: his war on cliche and his, sometimes too polite, contempt for distinctions with no difference– it’s marriage, period. We are not seeking ‘gay marriage’ (oh how I despise the term) but ‘marriage equality.’ Wolfson has done the most to re-frame the debate.

    Second, the reasons are precisely what he predicted in his important book “Why Marriage Matters”: that being a “patchwork” dynamic of conflicting and shifting laws that affirm the principal that states are the laboratories for social change. What we see is exactly what Wolfson predicated and, of course, a consequence of his work.

    Finally, I understand why this front in the battle takes this tack but no one seems to notice the immense contradiction in wanting it both ways: inconsistent pleading.

    We argue, on the one hand, that the voters of the various states have a right to vote to make marriage legal for same-gender couples. We we have worked on that premise and, please notice, it is President Obama’s (shame on him) legal rubbish (ketman?) about ‘state’s rights.’ His absurdly ironic argument is that the State of Virginia should have been allowed to outlaw miscegenation. Of course, no one believes even he swallows that rubbish. And shame on us for not calling him out. Sorry but I don’t agree that exploiting legal ignorance is an ethical strategy but rather that education is the better and higher road.

    And there is the contradiction. The essence of the argument before the Supreme Court will be that sorry, no, actually, you don’t get to vote on it. Neither the voters nor the states nor Congress get to decide. All such gay jim crow laws are a house of cards. It all comes down. States’ rights is the classic Jim Crow platform. Instead of keeping that hideous ghost alive Obama (and we) call openly for driving stake in it’s heart.

    This legal no-brainer very simple and exactly as the late Justice Robert H. Jackson said more than seventy years ago in his famous dissent in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. That “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. … [F]undamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” Just that simple.

    Jackson, of course was talking about the rudimentary, ‘republican’ and very anti-democratic, notion that this republic is not under the control ignorant and bigoted mob, that disfavored minorities do have fundamental protection from the majority tyranny Tocqueville and the founders were so concerned about. It’s the very reason why they essentially said, ‘ooops let’s reconvene and draft a Bill of Rights so that, under separation of powers, an independent judiciary say, just as is did in Loving and Brown, ‘Sorry but, no, actually you do not get to vote on it for the Constitution trumps you all. Don’t like it? Sorry, go amend the Constitution.’

    And that is why the notion of Constitution amendment will again be floated when we win— to undo the court. History tells us that amendment has a snow ball’s chance in hell even where a clear majority agrees. Anyone remember ERA?

    Though I disagree with the notion that even ‘we’ get to vote on it I do understand why activism had no choice but to do battle on two inconsistent fronts. Either way we must take our victories as we find them.

    Suffice to say, Wolfson is being far too modest and his contribution should be more openly acknowledged.

  4. Francois says:

    And great blog but can we please have a good print format.

  5. gary47290 says:

    Marriage won because equality for same sex couples is intrinsically a conservative position, and demographics is on our side. Let’s look at the votes on marriage since 1998, exclude the Bible Belt states. (This exclusion is a reasonable assumption because they were also the holdouts at the end of school segregation, overturned by Brown v Board; mixed race marriage bans, overturned by Loving v Virginia; and sodomy laws, overturned by Lawrence v Texas).

    Average pro-Gay vote on marriage amendments:
    Pre-2004 elections: 36.7% (6 states)
    2004 election: 39.3% (6 states)
    2005-06 elections: 42.6% (6 states)
    2008 and later: 49.3% (7 states, includes our victories in Nov 2012)

    Bible Belt states had this percent of pro-Gay votes on marriage:
    2004 election: 23.9% (7 states)
    2005-06 elections: 27.3% (5 states)
    2008-12 elections: 38.2% (2 states)

    My message to Maggie and her Flying Monkeys: do the math, You’ve run the course on Bible Belt, and have only more losses ahead.

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