Despite the solid Democratic majority in the state Legislature (so solid as to reward organizers and chief sponsor Senator Dennis Damon, a Hancock County Democrat, with 63 co-sponsors after the bill was introduced), the effort to achieve gay marriage in Maine will be arduous. The results of ballot measures and legislative initiatives over the last several years — most notably, the victory of Proposition 8 in California last November — suggest an unfavorable national attitude toward same-sex marriage. But there are glimmers of hope, from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Vermont. From all these states, both sides are learning, stealing strategies, and gaining momentum and inspiration.
Consider Vermont, which passed its law recognizing (and creating) same-sex civil unions in 2000 as something of a compromise with anti-gay activists. From that state, which is now considering replacing civil unions with marriage, Maine organizers learned that "you can get stuck at civil unions," Bellows says. While it was seen as a victory at the time (and still places Vermont ahead of many other states), civil unions have "fallen short of full equality," she says — in ways both tangible (related to benefits) and intangible (in terms of ideals of justice and fairness).
"There's respect and dignity that comes with marriage that simply does not come with civil unions or domestic partnerships," Smith says. As evidence, organizers will ship in some Vermont couples to testify at the hearing, to illustrate for legislators just how civil unions have foundered there. (See sidebar, "Separate Is Not Equal.")
Marriage advocates in Maine want to make sure to avoid that same compromise fate (there's one domestic-partnership bill on the table — it would address some state-level benefits but not all, and certainly no federal ones — but it hasn't gained much attention or traction yet). Already, they're running up against some word-related worries.
"What it really comes down to for a lot of legislators is calling it 'marriage' — that's been the sticking point," says Laura Harper of the Maine Women's Lobby, who spends the majority of her time speaking with legislators in Augusta. "Legislators that I'm talking to day-in and day-out, they are with us. They're just not with us on the word."
That's exactly the effect that the opposition is going for. "It's not about rights, it's about marriage — it's about usurping marriage from the traditional definition of one man and one woman," says Marc Mutty, a lobbyist and public-affairs official for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which is the statewide authority for Maine Catholics. Though the Catholic Church supports extending to same-sex couples certain benefits already granted to many types of non-spousal relationship situations, Mutty says: "You can't have marriage. You can't have the term marriage, the concept marriage, the reality of marriage. Things that are different are different, and legislating that they're the same doesn't make them the same. It's not a semantics game."
But how else to describe debate that hinges on a two-syllable sound?
"When you call it something else, it is something else," Smith said at the EqualityMaine dinner. "It shows just how important the word 'marriage' is."