Same-Sex Situation Not As Bleak As It Seems

18 November 2004

By Stentor Danielson

The religious right was understandably thrilled when it heard the results of the election earlier this month. The great flashpoint of the culture wars today is same-sex marriage, and the election results look like a resounding endorsement of the anti-gay view. The media trumpeted the fact that more voters selected “moral values” — a code word for “sex” — than any other option when asked what the most important issue was in deciding their vote. Born-again president George W. Bush was headed back to the White House. And 11 states passed ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage.

The left – both religious and secular – bought into the storyline as well. Many bitterly blamed the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for pushing the envelope too far too fast. Had they just been more patient, biding their time until a majority of Americans were on their side, we could have transitioned smoothly into an era of marriage equality instead of provoking a homophobic backlash.

Yet upon closer examination, the situation is not nearly so grim. The results of November 2 do not herald a resurgence of opposition to homosexuality.

Let’s start with the “moral values” voters. For all the ink that has been spilled over it, the idea that an outbreak of conservative moral sentiment handed the election to the GOP is simply not true. Though changes in question wording make it difficult to compare exit polls from different years, any plausible comparison shows no significant gain for Bush in values votes from where he stood in 2000. And while 22% of voters said that moral values were their top priority, a full 34% cited foreign policy issues as their main concern – a fact obscured by breaking the latter issue down into separate “Iraq” and “terrorism” categories. That’s a huge gain over the measly 12% who based their vote on “world affairs” in 2000, indicating the real terrain upon which the presidential race was fought.

And if those moral values voters were looking to put a champion in the White House, they will find their choice a bit lackluster. As homophobes go, George W. Bush is a mild one. His dutiful introduction of the Federal Marriage Amendment had all the marks of discharging an obligation to a client, rather than a passionate crusade. The religious right is demanding that the government try again, and doubtless they’ll make an attempt. But Bush’s heart won’t be in it.

During the later days of the campaign, Bush made a remarkable statement: “I don’t think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that’s what a state chooses to do so.” Combine that with John Kerry’s unwillingness to alienate cultural conservatives, and the difference between the stated positions of the two candidates was practically nil. We’re far from Falwelltopia when the leader of the GOP decides that civil unions are a nice moderate-sounding policy to endorse.

It’s disheartening to hear that 11 states passed bans on same-sex marriage (some of which also ban civil unions). But take a look at the list of states: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon, and Utah. Aside from Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon, these are the reddest of the red states – and Michigan and Ohio aren’t known for being socially progressive either. So the religious right was merely picking the low-hanging fruit. Only Oregon’s vote was ever in doubt.

Since none of the states that passed anti-marriage measures had allowed same-sex marriage before November, the vote merely endorsed the status quo. Indeed, most of them already had legislatively enacted “Defense of Marriage” measures. And because they required only a majority vote to pass – unlike the more complicated super-majoritarian process that an amendment to the federal or Massachusetts constitution would require – the ballot initiatives can be overturned easily enough when a majority of voters in each of these states drop their immoral values.

On the other hand, same-sex marriage in the one state that has it looks more secure post-election. Not a single Massachusetts legislator who supported marriage was defeated, while pro-marriage candidates ousted two anti-marriage incumbents and picked up six of eight open seats. Meanwhile, in nearby Connecticut, state legislators are preparing a civil unions bill that has the endorsement of the state’s Republican governor.

Passing an amendment is an act of fear. The religious right sees its dominance of our culture slipping away, and it wants to get its values enshrined in law before it’s too late. With younger people far more likely to support gay rights than their elders, the window of opportunity for the religious right is closing. They had a golden opportunity this year, as high-profile attempts to secure marriage equality put the issue on the nation’s mind. And yet their recent victory is remarkably thin. If this is the best backlash the religious right can muster, there’s reason for advocates of equality to be cautiously optimistic.

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