United States: The struggle for equal marriage rights after Maine

Issue 

In stark contrast to the surge of pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activism, and legislative and legal progress in recent months, Maine voters overturned equal marriage rights in a referendum on November 3 by a margin of 53% to 47%.

A voter turnout of nearly 50%, local efforts by 8000 volunteers — many of them straight — and a national phone blitz to try to sway Mainers to uphold equal marriage rights was not sufficient to retain same-sex marriage in that state.

Maine's Question 1 — similar to California's Proposition 8 that reversed same-sex marriage rights in that state exactly one year ago — once again placed civil rights on the ballot.

In Washington state, a new law that greatly expands the rights of LGBT couples — though not including the right to marry itself — was approved by voters, but by an unexpectedly narrow margin of 51% to 49%.

The failure of the same-sex marriage forces in Maine's "No on 1" campaign to retain marriage equality laws, passed earlier this year by the legislature, highlights four central problems: 1) Civil rights activists are weakest outside of urban areas where the financial and institutional resources of the right can dominate rural politics; 2) President Barack Obama and the Democrats have failed to deliver on their promise of "fierce advocacy" of LGBT civil rights; 3) LGBT rights must be enacted into law by the federal government; and 4) Civil rights should not be reduced to election fodder to be manipulated by well-financed bigots.

Nationwide, LGBT activists scrambled in a monumental effort to try to stop right-wingers in Maine from succeeding.

The right-wing effort relied on money from the Catholic Church and blitzed the media with lies about how gay marriage would be taught in the schools and imposed on religious institutions.

Equal marriage has lost in every state it has been put to a popular vote — 31 in all. Despite the fact that the "No on 1" campaign, Protect Maine Equality, raised US$4 million and the anti-same-sex marriage forces raised only $2.5 million, the strategy of statewide ballot initiatives plays to activists' weaknesses, especially in non-urban areas.

In addition to the purposely confusing language used by the right in these initiatives —voting "yes" denied equality, voting "no" would have retained it — larger population centres create opportunities for activists to reach people in groups, as in Portland, Maine, where the vote was an overwhelming 73% against Question 1.

At the University of Maine's Orono campus, 81% of students voted against taking away equal marriage rights, showing the generation gap on this question.

Similarly, in Washington state, it was urban King County that voted overwhelmingly for the "everything but marriage" referendum, while the less populated eastern part of the state voted against it.

Just three weeks after the massively successful LGBT National Equality March that drew more than 200,000 people demanding full federal equality now, conservatives are punching back.

Right-wing bigots like Pat Robertson have attacked recently enacted federal hate crimes legislation, saying: "The noose has tightened around the necks of Christians to keep them from speaking out on certain moral issues."

In the face of this, the Democrats have been passive at best and hostile at worst. The White House and Congress have failed to deliver so far on promises to reverse decades of legal discrimination in federal and state laws.

When Attorney-General Eric Holder was asked about Maine's Question 1, he said that he and Obama "are of the view it is for states to make these decisions".

Holder later said to one blogger, "I don't really know enough about the referendum over there to comment".

As National Equality March organiser Cleve Jones said on MSNBC, Obama's silence on Question 1 "is a far cry from the fierce advocacy he promised us in his campaign".

Even more outrageous, not only did the Democratic National Committee refuse to help finance the "No on 1" campaign, but it expressed crass indifference to LGBT rights when the DNC's organisation Organizing for America (formerly known as Obama for America) e-mailed Maine voters the day before the election about getting involved … in the gubernatorial contest in New Jersey (which lost)!

The failure of the Democrats to hold onto huge gains made in the 2008 election in New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races — and the flaccid response from Obama's base — reveals that the inability of the Democrats in power to deliver on their promises is alienating progressives.

David Mixner, long-time Democratic Party activist and initiator of the call for the National Equality March, said: "President Obama and his team were zero help in this critical battle, and in the last week might actually have hurt us."

Maine's reversal on marriage equality proves once again the bankruptcy of the state-by-state, issue-by-issue strategy upheld by many establishment LGBT forces. This approach concedes that civil rights must remain on the precarious turf of the states, in a country where the constitution is supposed to guarantee equal protection under the law.

Even if Maine voters had rejected Question 1, most marriage rights, like social security, are only gained through the federal government and married LGBT people in Maine, as in the equal-marriage states, would have remained second-class citizens under the law.

The right's strategy of placing LGBT civil rights on state ballots for a vote places the battle for human equality on an unstable and hostile terrain. Why should anyone have to battle in each locality for equal treatment in a country where the 14th Amendment — passed after the Civil War — guarantees equal protection to all US citizens?

Why should LGBT people have to repeatedly reassert that we are equal human beings in every state and municipality 45 years after the federal Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination?

Civil rights cannot wait for the approval of reactionaries. By that logic, Blacks, too, should have waited for public opinion to catch up with their demands.

But in 1968, one year after the Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage as unconstitutional, Gallup polls showed that only 20% of Americans approved of marriages between Blacks and whites.

The failure of Maine's "No on 1" campaign highlights why the National Equality March demand for full equality in all matters of civil law in all 50 states must continue to be the rallying cry of grassroots activists across the country.

Remember Maine. Get out and organise for full federal equality now!
[Sherry Wolf is author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation. This article is abridged from www.socialistworker.org.]