TOPICS > Politics

Does States’ Ratification of Same-Sex Marriage Signify Lasting Cultural Shift?

November 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Gay rights advocates won ballot measures in three states -- Washington State, Maryland, and Maine -- ratifying by popular vote the legalization of same-sex marriage. For opposing views on the new laws, Ray Suarez talks to National Organization for Marriage's Thomas Peters and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders' Lee Swislow.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Arizona officials today declared that Democratic House candidate Kyrsten Sinema won her race for the Ninth District, which means she will be the first openly bisexual person to serve in Congress.

Her election follows some strong messages sent last week by voters in favor of gay couples exchanging vows.

Ray Suarez has our look.

RAY SUAREZ: For the first time, supporters of same-sex marriage won at the ballot box last week, after more than 30 losses. Washington State, Maryland and Maine became the first states to approve the practice by popular vote.

And, in Minnesota, voters shot down a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

CONNIE KAUPPI, Minnesota: It means everything, all my friends, to my community. You know, I mean, I have faith in Minnesota. I love this state so much.

RAY SUAREZ: Before last Tuesday, marriage for same-sex couples was legal in six states and the District of Columbia, but those measures were passed by lawmakers or imposed by court rulings. Five other states now allow civil unions.

Election Day marked another milestone for gays in politics. Wisconsin Democrats Tammy Baldwin was elected as the first openly lesbian member of the U.S. Senate, although she said that wasn’t her main focus.

SENATOR-ELECT TAMMY BALDWIN, D-Wis.: I didn’t run to make history. I ran to make a difference…

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

 

TAMMY BALDWIN: …a difference in the lives of families struggling to find work and pay the bills.

RAY SUAREZ: Gay activists now hope to chip away at laws in some 30 states that bar same-sex marriage, including North Carolina, where earlier this year voters approved an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. The very next day, the president announced he backed what its supporters call marriage equality.

And later this month, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court discuss whether to review six gay rights cases. Four involve challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

So what do Tuesday’s results signal about a political and cultural shift in America? And what’s next in this battle?

We’re joined by representatives from both sides of the argument. Thomas Peters is cultural director of the National Organization for Marriage.

And Lee Swislow is the executive director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.

And, Thomas Peters, wherever this battle ends up, and it may take a long time, was Election Day a turning point?

THOMAS PETERS, National Organization for Marriage: No, not at all.

I think these were tactical wins. Going into these four state fights, we had no illusions. These were deep blue states. We were vastly outraised by our opponents.

And even despite all those political forces against us, we still managed to have very close margins in the final tally.

So what I’m hearing this week is that it’s not a big shift. We are encouraged and to double down and to renew our efforts.

RAY SUAREZ: Lee Swislow, How do you see it?

LEE SWISLOW, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders: I see it somewhat differently. I think it was hugely significant. And I think it indicates really the kind of journey that the American people have been on over the last several years.

In Maine, three years ago, this same electorate voted against marriage equality after the Maine legislature had passed a bill. And three years later, after many, many conversations, they voted in favor of marriage equality.

And I just want to emphasize that what those conversations are about is about why marriage matters to same-sex couples. And it matters because we fall in love and we want to make a lifelong commitment to the person we love.

And Americans can understand that and relate to that. So I think this really shows the power of those conversations.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Thomas Peters, your organization and many others like it had set great store by the fact that, until now, voters had never approved these laws. They had just been the product of judicial action or legislative action.

So, how can you say now that it’s not really significant that the voters have broken that streak?

THOMAS PETERS: Well, I think victory after victory can bring complacency.

We had phone calls coming into our office the day after the Election Day saying, I had no idea we could possibly lose this. We have won 30 times in a row. What can I do now?

And I think that, in some sense, is, so many of our previous fights have been on relatively even ground. Proposition 8 in California, which was our first big, large referendum in recent years, we were outspent, but not anywhere even close to these margins.

If you look at where gay marriage is trying to gain a foothold, these are deep blue states, where marriage outperformed Mitt Romney. In Maryland, for instance, 23 percent of people who supported Barack Obama also supported our view of marriage.

And, so, you know, for a movement that says it is inevitable, this is not the landscape of inevitable movement. We see it as an encouraging factor. And there are numerous states that have yet to settle this question definitively. That’s where we will be active.

And we have two Supreme Court cases where we also believe that our side will overcome when all is said and done.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what do you think about that, Lee Swislow, electorally low-hanging fruit, deep blue states where the marriage questions didn’t even do as well as the presidential candidates.

LEE SWISLOW: Well, I think, again, we have to focus on movement and on the journey that people are taking.

And, you know, our polling showed — again, Maine, I know most deeply because we were so involved in the work in Maine — but three years ago, our own polling showed us with 47 percent support. And we went into it with 47 percent support. And that’s what we came out with, 47 percent support.

Three years later, we had 53 percent support. So that’s a pretty dramatic indication. I think Maine was as blue then as it is now.

So, what we’re seeing is people are changing on this issue. And, in fact, if you look at polls in every state in the country over the last, say, 10 to 15 years, in every state, support for marriage equality has increased.

Now, in some states, it started low and it’s still low, but things are moving in our direction. And that’s the way they’re going.

RAY SUAREZ: Things are moving in her direction?

THOMAS PETERS: I think it’s really interesting that she’s bringing up the point about polling.

All of the statements from the national pro-gay marriage groups I have seen show they’re still extremely wary about state votes.

The Human Rights Campaign is saying they still want to focus on how gay marriage has traditionally been pushed, which is by legislatures and activist judges. And so we can talk about shifts and changes stuff like that.

I think this election demonstrated on a lot of different counts it is about turnout. I think conservatives of various stripes who have various different priorities saw that this was an election where turnout really mattered.

And I think that’s one of the priorities for the pro-marriage movement moving forward is turning out our people as successfully as our opponents did this time around. And one good place to start with it is having an equal financial and activist footing. And that’s what we’re addressing right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Lee Swislow, looking forward, can the United States sustain a map where we’re sort of a patchwork quilt of marriage laws, where your marriage conducted not long after the law changed in Massachusetts is not respected in half the states?

LEE SWISLOW: Well, I think, ultimately, it probably is not sustainable. But at this point, I think this is where we’re at. And we need to win more states before we really look for a larger solution.

And marriage is so important. It’s so important to same-sex couples. There are couples who live in states where marriage isn’t recognized who go to marriage states to get married, even knowing that they’re not going to have that relationship recognized by the state or at this point by the federal government.

And yet that commitment is so important to people.

So, logistically, the patchwork is really — it’s a big drag. And married couples when they travel out of state bring their marriage licenses, if they have kids, adoption certificates. And they bring as much documentation as they have with the hope that their relationship will be recognized.

But at this point, I think that is the life we’re living. And we want to continue to build support through conversations with people until the country is ready I think for a larger solution.

RAY SUAREZ: While you work to make exactly that not happen.

THOMAS PETERS: Well, we work to protect marriage because we believe that marriage is the best social institution we have to maintain the fact that children are raised by their parents, by their moms and dads.

And the other side has done a very good job of messaging what their view is. Our challenge is to message what our view is. And we find that when people are introduced to the merits, they come our way.

We had national polling out the same day nationwide that showed over 57 percent of people believe that, to make a marriage, you need a husband and a wife.

And we believe that this question will ultimately be decided by the people. It should be decided by the people. And that’s what NOM has been standing for since the very…

RAY SUAREZ: Let me jump in there. Aren’t you standing on shifting sand, given the momentum of the polls, given the momentum of the legal challenges, the losses in various federal appellate courts, the changes in various state laws?

Maybe you will win tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. But are you fighting against an inevitability at this point?

THOMAS PETERS: No, for two important reasons. First of all, I believe in the truth of my pro-marriage views, just as the other side does. And people who have those deep-seated convictions don’t look at the changing tides, wherever they may be. They fight for what’s true and what is right.

Second of all, I think it’s amazing with all of the cultural forces trying to redefine marriage that we’re still here in 2012 just barely seeing some footholds gained in deep blue states. I think the future of the marriage movement is bright. And, ultimately, I don’t believe history moves in one direction.

RAY SUAREZ: Lee Swislow?

LEE SWISLOW: I think having same-sex couples marry is a big change.

People had not been used to the idea. I have to say, for myself, when I first came out in the mid-’70s, it never occurred to me that I would be able to legally marry. And yet I was able to do that in Massachusetts in 2004.

So, we’re seeing tremendous change.

We’re also seeing — just demographically, we’re seeing Republicans and Democrats supporting marriage equality. We’re seeing support from all age groups. We’re seeing support from people of faith. We’re seeing support from people throughout the country. So, I feel like things are moving forward. And I’m very optimistic and very excited.

RAY SUAREZ: Lee Swislow, Thomas Peters, thank you both for joining us.