California matters

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  May 21, 2008

That is certainly the case with same-sex marriage. California contains 10 percent of the nation’s people, and, thanks to its gay-friendly cities and industries, an even bigger percentage of its gays and lesbians. Roughly one of every seven American same-sex couples lives in California, according to the US Census — about twice as many as in New York, which ranks second, and five times the number here in Massachusetts.

In addition, California will allow nonresidents to marry (unlike Massachusetts, still stuck with a statute against marriages that would not be recognized in the couple’s home state), which means that couples nationwide will bring back legal licenses to challenge their home states’ current stances.

But even just considering the nearly 100,000 same-sex couples cohabitating in California, according to the Census — almost certainly a gross undercount — the sheer number of people affected will force new levels of institutional acceptance. Massachusetts’s gay marriages were a curiosity; California’s will be a demographic. And a market segment. (Rainbowweddingnetwork.com has already scheduled three gay-wedding expos in California this summer.) Large corporations will have to adopt policies and paperwork recognizing same-sex spouses, not only for their employees but, where applicable, for their customers. (Expect sales and customer-service representatives to start asking your spouse’s gender as they input your information into their databases.)

California’s leap forward will undoubtedly also have ripple effects in the short term — as states such as Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine consider further steps toward marriage equality — and in the long term, as states eventually consider repeal of their zealous constitutional amendments. (A movement is already underway in Michigan, where an overly broad “Defense of Marriage Amendment” is preventing the state from offering a range of rights to gay partners.) The call for reversals could be sped up if Hollywood celebrities begin boycotting states that don’t recognize their spouses’ legal status.

This all assumes, of course, that the state’s Supreme Court ruling does, in fact, result in a parade of queer matrimony. Opponents, aware of California’s singular importance, will try to prevent it, but all signs currently point to a rush to the starting aisle.

Political realities
Even before the ruling came, gay-marriage opponents in California had submitted more than a million signatures to put an amendment initiative on the ballot this November. Assuming the signatures are certified, voters will have a chance to, in effect, overrule the state’s Supreme Court. Both sides of the issue are estimating that they will each spend between $10 and $20 million on the effort, dwarfing anything we’ve seen in Massachusetts.

Eight years ago, a ballot initiative in that state with identical language — which sought to create a statute, rather than to amend the state constitution — passed with 61 percent of the vote. (It was this statute that was ruled unconstitutional.)

Nobody expects the same result in 2008; a constitutional amendment is generally a tougher sell, and people have become far more accepting of same-sex marriage over time. But nobody knows whether attitudes have changed enough to bring that 61 percent figure below the 50 percent required for passage.

Following the ruling, news media quickly speculated that the same-sex-marriage initiative, by driving voter turnout among social conservatives, could give John McCain a chance at winning the state — a result that would almost certainly guarantee him the presidency. Indeed, this political angle dominated national coverage of the court ruling.

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