While some groups — including the National Organization for Marriage — claim otherwise, much of the data available points to a significant shift in American public opinion on gay and lesbian marriage since 2001.
According to Pew Research Center reports from this year, growing support for same-sex marriage is no longer limited to card-carrying liberals. Nationwide, 48 percent of Americans approve of gay marriage, including half of Hispanics, 44 percent of African Americans and 51 percent of women.
The country’s evolving views were on full display November 6, when progressives won same-sex marriage victories in Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota.
Prior to the votes cast in the 2012 election, same-sex marriage had lost 31 times at the ballot box since the question was first posted to an electorate in 1998, when Hawaiians voted in favor of a gay marriage ban.
But despite this year’s results, regional gaps in public support for gay marriage underline how shifting opinions on the subject do not extend to all corners of the country.
In May for example, a clear majority — over 61 percent — of North Carolinians voted to ban same-sex marriage. And in the South Central region of the United States, the percentage of residents who favor same-sex marriage remains well below the national average at 35 percent.
So how fast are opinions really changing? The state of Maine offers us an important case study on the difference a few years can make.
In 2009, the people of Maine were asked to respond to a law passed by the state’s legislature that allowed for gay marriage in the state. With over 500,000 votes cast, traditional marriage proponents won and the law was struck down.
This year, Mainers reversed course. With over 700,000 votes cast, supporters of same-sex marriage won at the ballot box for the first time, capturing 52 percent of the vote.
To understand what changed in three years, I spoke with Lisa Arellano, Associate Professor at Colby College, who also heads the college’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department.
Arellano explained that the language in this year’s referendum was the first time that same-sex marriage advocates framed the ballot question — and the linguistic differences, she said, were critical.
In 2009, the ballot question read:
Do you want to reject the new law that lets same-sex couples marry and allows individuals and religious groups to refuse to perform these marriages?
In 2012, the referendum was more simply worded:
Do you want to allow the State of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?
“It was the first time that citizens have had to vote on a positive measure for gay marriage, and I think this had a huge impact on how the election went,” said Arellano. “Mainers are libertarian and have a real level of respect for personal choice, so the straightforward question… was much more appealing for your average Maine voter.”
National politics also played into the switch, said Joe Fox, Director of “Question One,” a documentary on the 2009 referendum. Fox, who spent months following supporters and opponents of the gay marriage vote in Maine with a camera crew, said voter turnout was crucial the second time around.
“Three years is what changed,” he said. “Voter turnout was so important and had a lot to do with people coming out in support of the initiative. The other factor is that in three years, you also had a president of the country who came out in support of [same-sex] marriage. That’s absolutely huge.”
National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown, whose organization contributed over $5.5 million to the fight in four states, released a statement after the results were tallied. In it, Brown condemns the media for forecasting an American electorate in flux:
“Our opponents and some in the media will attempt to portray the election results as a changing point in how Americans view gay marriage, but that is not the case,” he said. “Americans remain strongly in favor of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The election results reflect the political and funding advantages our opponents enjoyed in these very liberal states.”
For Arellano, it will take more than victories in a few states to lead to greater national change. “It’s going to take a federal marriage amendment to achieve marriage equality,” she said.
“And I think it may very well have to be by edict, regardless of public opinion. Because, do I think that there is going to be a groundswell moment where members of communities that are adamantly opposed to gay marriage are going to change their minds? I doubt it very much.”
A federal change may come in time, but for now, proponents of gay marriage in Maine — particularly those who were involved in the movement’s 2009 defeat — feel there is much to be proud of.
“It’s certainly a moment for celebration,” said Arellano. “It marks a real change, not just in Maine, but potentially something broader.”
What do you think? Is the tide in America turning toward national approval of same-sex marriage? Sound off in the comments below or join the discussion on Facebook.