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Reading the Maine Marriage Equality Setback

Let’s face it; this loss in Maine is tough to swallow. Here’s a comment from a despondent reader:

I know after some rest I’ll even out and get back to the business of living, but right now I feel very done with the ballot box, and donating, and phone-banking, and talking myself blue in the face, etc. I honestly don’t feel its proper to submit the rights of a minority to a popular vote and I’m not up for any further indignities at this time. I’m sure I’ll come around and get on with it like everyone else, but right now … I don’t know.

It’s easy to feel this way, especially after the heady victories over the past year throughout New England and in Iowa. There’s a brick wall that still hasn’t been battered down: When voters have been asked to weigh in on marriage equality, they consistently vote against us. We’d likely win in a state like Vermont, and maybe in a few other places, but we’re not there yet in most places — even, as we saw, in California or Maine. Nor is the Maine story as “spinnable” in our favor as the California narrative, because this time the equality forces outspent their opponents, and did the very kind of door-to-door campaigning that was supposed to result in victory. It’s tempting to join the reader’s pessimistic appraisal, and ask:  “What’s left to try”?

It’s fair enough to feel that way on the day after such a devastating loss. But two things seem worth saying. First, we should acknowledge that there is indeed something wrong with putting minority rights up to a vote by the majority. But of course the constitutional or, in Maine, referendum, process in many states allows just this sort of result. Judicial challenges, as we’ve seen, are risky, too. One day (not soon) the U.S. Supreme Court may put an end to this state-by-state denial of basic equality, but for now, we’re stuck with the political process. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing, as it forces us (or should) to continue to engage our neighbors about our lives, and their value.

Second, we’re pushing closer and closer to that 50% threshold. It seems right now that we’re in the 47-48% range in more socially progressive states, so we’ve not far to go. And when the (in this sense) toxic word “marriage” is taken out of the equation, we’ve now cleared that majority hurdle: It looks as though the Washington full domestic partnership ordinance will stand. This result mirrors national polls, which now consistently show a majority in favor of at least marriage-in-all but name status for same-sex couples. It’s literally the word “marriage” — and its manifold, deeply embedded religious and cultural significance for many (including same-sex couples, of course) — that keeps the wall standing.

But let’s keep this in mind: In 2009, we’re already there, in many places, on equality in all-but-name. In a few states, we’ve even crossed the barrier on marriage. In several others, we’re close. Now think about where we were a decade ago. From that perspective, our progress has been nothing short of astonishing.

As a father with two young kids, I’m determined that they grow up in a place where their family is valued. As a citizen married in all but law to my spouse, I demand equality. Nothing else will, or should, placate us. I still believe — I still know — that we will get there, and soon.

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