Civil Liberties

Gay Marriage: The Victory After the Defeat


Spinning off of Jacob Sullum's column today on gay marriage and gay rights, a couple of recent analyses of the meaning of gay marriage's electoral defeats last month point out, accurately I think, that gay marriage is seeing its last wave of defeats presaging likely complete victory.

From Michael Brendan Dougherty in the November 17 American Conservative:

Superficially, 2008 seems like a….success for social conservatives. Following the passage of marriage amendments in Arizona and Florida, as well as California, Maggie Gallagher wrote at National Review Online, "when it comes to marriage, there is no such thing as a blue state or a red state. Americans support marriage as the union of husband and wife." But a closer look at the election results and the legal developments in the past year suggests that 2008 is in fact the year the marriage debate tipped in favor of same-sex marriage.

Only Arizona passed its traditional marriage initiative by 2004-like margins. While only 38 percent voted against the Florida initiative, the measure passed the required 60-percent threshold by just 2 points. In California, Proposition 8 passed by a bare 52 percent of the vote, and exit polls seem to attribute its success to an abnormally high turnout of socially conservative black voters. In Connecticut, voters had the chance to resist their state's pro-gay-marriage Supreme Court decision, Kerrigan v. Public Health, by voting for a constitutional convention. That initiative failed by 20 points.


Exit polls reveal that without the overwhelming support of voters over 65, neither the Florida nor California marriage initiatives would have passed. Younger voters turned out overwhelmingly against them. Absent an incredible shift in attitudes, same-sex marriage will soon command majority support. Shrinking majorities voting in favor of traditional marriage will encourage similar rulings to the Connecticut court's. And the legal precedents used in Kerrigan will be used to challenge the 29 state laws restricting marriage to a union of one man and one woman.

The minor victories for marriage traditionalists this year point to defeats in the near future. Unless social conservatives find a way to appeal to voters under 40, [San Francisco Mayor Gavin] Newsom's prediction, "It's inevitable," is unassailable.

Dougherty isn't thrilled by this conclusion; he just thinks it's accurate. And in Rolling Stone, in an article that excoriates the opponents of Prop. 8 for a feckless and slow campaign (which points out that merely saying that the No on 8 forces raised more money than the Yes forces is misleading, since the Yes campaign got moving and raising big bucks much faster), the conclusion is similarly optimistic:

Since 2000, the margin of voters in the state who oppose gay marriage has plunged from 23 points to only four.

"The speed at which this issue is moving is unprecedented in my personal political experience," says Bill Carrick, a prominent Democratic consultant who worked on the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy. "Support for gay marriage has moved so far, in such a short period of time, that I think we're going to look back at Prop 8 as an aberration. History is headed in a very pro-gay-marriage direction, and it probably is going to happen in a much shorter time than anybody imagines."

It does help pro-gay marriage forces to be of good cheer and remember that we have seen remarkably quick shifts in public perception on this issue; it has gone from the kind of fear of a nightmare future a Falwell would use in a fundraising letter 20 years ago to something supported by many courts and near-majorities of state voters. What's happening now is not a wickedly powerful and on-the-grow religious right taking away some fundamental right we've always known, but a matter of the last fading shows of force from a mentality battered and on the ropes, not one vital and getting stronger, electoral victories notwithstanding.