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By Mubarak Dahir
It would be easy to be down about the immediate prospects around the country for winning equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
And the voices of discontent within the gay and lesbian community are already bubbling to the naysayer surface.
These voices say that we have picked a losing battle in the fight for marriage, that the backlash is too strong, that America is not yet ready for gays and lesbians to walk down the aisle, that the marriage effort is pushing gay civil rights backwardsÑand so on, and so on.
But they are wrong. This is a pessimistic, shortsighted view of what is just the beginning of a perhaps long but remarkable revolution for gay and lesbian people toward winning the right to marry.
Two states, Missouri and Louisiana, have already overwhelmingly passed amendments to their state constitutions that ban recognition of same-sex marriage. In Missouri, the first state to adopt a gay marriage ban back in early August, voters approved the amendment by a whopping 71 to 29 percent.
Following soon after, 79 percent of Louisiana voters chose to pass that state’s amendment, which not only prohibits same-sex marriage, but also bans civil unions. In what will likely turn out to be a temporary victory, a judge just struck down the Louisiana amendment as unconstitutional because it aims to do two thingsÑstop gay marriage and civil unionsÑrather than focusing on a single issue, as required there.
There was some rejoicing when the amendment was struck down, but that elation will not last long. With such an overwhelming number of people voting against gay and lesbian marriage the first time around, it’s only realistic to believe that in a second vote, on an amendment more carefully crafted so as not to be thrown out of court on a technicality, Louisiana voters will once again say no to gay and lesbian marriage.
And Missouri and Louisiana appear to be just the beginning.
There will likely be some sort of ballot showdown on gay and lesbian marriage rights in at least 11 states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio. In the past, four statesÑAlaska, Hawaii, Nebraska and NevadaÑalready passed such constitutional amendments.
Even gay rights activists admit that in the nearly dozen states where a state constitutional amendment is looming, only in two states do activists have any real hopes of defeating the measures. Those states are Oregon and Michigan. And those will be uphill battles, not guaranteed victories.
The religious right, which funds much of the movement to get anti-gay marriage initiatives on state ballots, is at this point gleeful. It’s easy to understand why. They are winning big victories at the ballot boxes.
While the news on marriage amendments can’t be prettied up much in any way to be good for gays and lesbians, we still shouldn’t feel defeated. We need to do what all civil rights struggles have done in the past: take a long view of history.
And we have plenty of optimism on our side.
First and foremost, we already have full marriage rights in one state, Massachusetts.Ê Legally, socially, politically and historically, that is going to prove to be an invaluable model and tool. And in a second state, Vermont, we have civil unions. In several other northeastern and New England states, marriage cases are working their way through friendly courts.
Furthermore, the discussion on marriage is forcing many people in straight America to have the conversation for the first time. It is uncomfortable for many of them, and they don’t like to talk about it, and they may even come down on the side against itÑbut until we have this conversation with America, until we force the issue to be on the table, we can’t make progress.
As with any controversial topic, you can’t expect the first discussion on the issue to be the last. Many Americans will initially say no to gay and lesbian marriage rights. But the more we talk about it, the more we raise the issue, and the more we educate the public about it, the more people will begin to change their minds.
The change may be slower than we want, but if we keep discussing it, the change will happen. If we wait, and keep pushing the issue under the rug until a “better time,” then nothing will happen. There will never be a “good time” to ask for our full rights. We have to make the time and the demands.
Finally, those who are panicking about the marriage bans are not just losing sight of the future, they are losing sight of the past, too.
When were Missouri and Louisiana ever held up as bastions of progressive advancement in our country? When did we start taking the lead on progressive social movements from the voters in Oklahoma and Utah and Georgia?
No offense to the citizens of these states, but history has shown us over and over again that residents in conservative states are generally going to be resistant to progressive social change, like gay and lesbian marriage. It’s no shocker that Missouri or Louisiana voted down gay marriage.
But that’s not where we should be looking for change so early in this battle. Instead, we should be heartened by the successes in Massachusetts, the nearly cultural revolution pioneered in California, the hope in Oregon and the courage of a small-town politician in New York State.
When I look at these places, I see the future, not the past.