July 12, 2011

MIKE TIPPING: A rising tide of support for equal marriage in Maine, U.S.

Mike Tipping

There's an optimism among supporters of equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. It's partly a belief that we're on the right side of history and partly a sense that we're being buoyed by a rising tide of public support.

This is fueled, in part, by the example of every other civil rights battle in our country's history, where opposition to inclusiveness has cracked and withered over time.

Mostly, however, it's born of hard data. Support for allowing gay and lesbian couples access to the basic right of marriage has increased steadily in poll after poll across the country and virtually every legislative and court decision on related issues over the past few years has moved our laws closer to acceptance and inclusion.

In fact, the shift in support seems to be accelerating. Last year, for the first time ever, national polls began to show a majority of Americans in favor of equal marriage.

When Equality Maine and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) recently held an event on the steps of Lewiston City Hall to announce that they would begin gathering signatures to allow Maine voters another chance to vote on the issue, they cited two new internal polls that showed 53 percent of Mainers supporting marriage. They also pointed to recent events in New York, where a Republican-controlled State Senate passed a crucial vote making equal marriage the law in the nation's third largest state.

There's no doubt they'll get the signatures they need to put the measure on the ballot in 2012. They have a motivated statewide grassroots base, tempered by years of work slowly and strategically advancing their issues.

The big question, then, is how will 2012 be different from 2009, when equal marriage was defeated with 53 percent of the electorate voting in favor of a people's veto.

One factor is the timing of the vote itself. As a presidential election year, 2012 likely will see a much higher turnout than did 2009, which means a younger electorate and one more likely to support equal rights.

Another is the strength of the opposition. In 2009, a partnership was created between national anti-gay rights organizations with boatloads of money and religious organizations in Maine, particularly the Catholic Church, with formidable in-state grassroots networks of congregants and parishioners that they could communicate with and mobilize on a weekly basis.

If these organizations can reconstitute that partnership, they'll once again pose a significant threat to the passage of equal marriage. The level of support from the Catholic Diocese is particularly important. In the series of referendums on basic gay rights in Maine, the protections passed only when the church decided to sit out the last campaign.

An additional consideration is the Maine Legislature. While the Republican-controlled House and Senate won't be able to stop a referendum from occurring, they could throw a wrench in the works by proposing a competing measure that would appear as another choice on the ballot, a move that would denying Maine people an up-or-down vote on marriage and make the issue more confusing for Maine voters.

In the end, despite these ancillary factors, the central issue still will be how justified the optimism of equal marriage supporters really is -- how much public opinion has changed over time.

It's important to remember that "public opinion" is an aggregate of personal conversations, interactions and shifts in perception. The pace of change so far and the outcome in 2012 has and will depend on the thoughts and actions of individuals.

With this in mind, a video on the Equality Maine website is heartening to watch. In it, a canvasser is speaking to woman who voted against equal marriage in 2009 and who says she probably would still oppose it.

"In my religion it's wrong, but I do have some lesbian family members. ... You see that they do love each other, they do care about each other, and they want to get married." says the woman. You can almost see the wheels turning as she re-evaluates the issue.

"I don't know what direction I'm headed in. ... You do have to be open-minded." the woman continues, with the canvasser saying nothing to interrupt her thought process.

And, then, finally: "By the time we vote again, I'd have to take into account my niece and what it means to her."

I wonder what she'll think in 2012.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He's @miketipping on Twitter. Email to writebacktomike@gmail.com

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