USA: Putting Gay Marriage To The Test
Voters in Maine have an opportunity today to legalise same-sex marriage and advance the cause of gay rights in America
Why has an isolated, rural state with a population of just 1.4 million become ground zero in the fight over gay marriage in the US?
Earlier this year, Maine's governor, John Baldacci, reluctantly signed a law allowing same-sex couples to marry. But a group opposing gay marriage, Stand for Marriage Maine, has forced a statewide referendum to overturn it – a "people's veto" – which will be held today.
Government restrictions on who can get married have long been part of US history. Maine barred whites from marrying blacks or Native Americans until 1881, and it wasn't until 1967 that the US supreme court ruled such anti-miscegenation statutes unconstitutional. Laws barring sodomy were overturned in 2003. But gay couples still struggle to attain this last legal equaliser.
Currently, four other states allow same-sex couples to marry: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and Vermont. New Hampshire will join them next year. What makes Maine unique is that, if the ballot measure is defeated, it will become the first popular referendum in the country approving gay marriage. Initiatives expanding gay rights are also on the ballots in Washington and Michigan.
Stand for Marriage Maine has received strong support, to the tune of nearly $350,000, from well-known opponents of gay marriage, including the Catholic church and National Organisation for Marriage. Opposing them, and the ballot initiative, is a consortium of gay rights advocates called NO on 1.
The fight between the two groups has picked up where the battle over Proposition 8 in California left off last year. There, voters succeeded in overturning the California law allowing gay marriage. And so Stand for Marriage Maine has taken not just a page but the entire playbook used out west. It hired the same public relations firm for its campaign and has even run exact copies of television ads, harping on the same theme that proved successful in California: that allowing gays to marry would lead to "teaching" about it schools, preying on fears the public may have.
But NO on 1 is also drawing on the experiences learned in the bitter Prop 8 loss. The campaign has been prepared to refute the claims that allowing gays to marry will affect school curricula (it will not). Its message has been a consistent portrayal of gay families as what they are, and makes one wonder what the fuss is about – they lead the same boring lives as the rest of us.
In Tuesday's election, the people's veto will likely be defeated and the law allowing same-sex marriage will stand. Supporters of gay marriage have raised almost twice as much money as opponents and enjoy strong support in the more urban and liberal southern part of Maine. Most people living here don't care much about the private lives of others and instead value the contributions each of us makes to our communities, our schools and our workplaces.
In a country where 30 states have voted that "marriage" is between one man and one woman, a vote in favour of gay marriage would be a first – a turn of the tide that will allow gay rights advocates in other states to take heart. Hopefully the old political adage "As Maine goes, so goes the nation" will ring true again.
3 November 2009