Same-sex marriage

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 25, 2009

And in doing so, legislators should keep in mind another lesson from the Bay State: voting for same-sex marriage rights may not affect electability. In Massachusetts, not one legislator who voted in favor of gay marriage was ousted from their seat in the subsequent election.

From California, where voters in November approved a ballot proposition (Prop 8) that restricts marriage in that state to the union of one man and one woman, gay-marriage opponents certainly gained optimism. Bob Emrich, the Plymouth pastor who heads the Maine Jeremiah Project, a leading gay-marriage opponent, told me in December: "We are greatly encouraged by the outcome of Prop 8."

In saying so, Emrich was merely echoing the sentiments of California organizer Ron Prentice, who said in the wake of the Prop 8 victory: "California's vote in favor of traditional marriage should give the silent majority comfort that they do have a voice and can and should stand up for this precious institution in legislatures throughout the world."

While what happened in California strikes both fear and frustration into gay-marriage supporters' hearts, it also provides insight into the importance of grassroots, door-to-door persuasion. It seems like an obvious point, but experts who analyzed the loss in California suggest that pro-gay-rights advocates missed some opportunities to put a human face on this issue. "[W]hat was fatally missing from the No on 8 campaign's advertising was the presence of actual gay and lesbian families telling their stories," reporter Louis Weisberg wrote in an article for the GLBT online news source "By holding back on the emotional punch and choosing instead to focus on cold principles, they say the campaign failed to move people on the opposing side."

Of course, many of the limitations in California were based on scale; organizers needed to reach millions of voters. In contrast, "Maine is a small state — it's a state where people know each other," Bellows points out. "We can actually have one-on-one conversations with voters."

"One thing we know is, it is really important to be able to share our stories, one-on-one, with decision-makers," Smith says. Right now, that means telling personal stories to legislators, and having straight friends and co-workers talk to legislators too. "There's a lot of people who support equality ... but don't necessarily think to come forward and talk to their legislator about it," Smith says. When they do so, they give legislators the kind of political clout they need to take potentially controversial stances.

Another thing pro-marriage organizers learned from California is how vicious the national anti-gay machine can be. But here, too, scale is on the Freedom to Marry Coalition's side.

"In Maine, because of its size, it's harder for the right wing to lie," says Mary Bonauto, a GLAD attorney who's worked on marriage campaigns in every New England state. "It'll still be ugly and unpleasant" — indeed, EqualityMaine expects to bump into a ton of nationally funded right-wing messaging — "but at least we'll have the opportunity to talk to people about it."

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  Topics: News Features , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Ethan Strimling,  More more >
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