If we had asked the leadership at Equality Maine about their plan for gay marriage say, two years ago, they would have likely said, “If we told you, we’d have to kill you.” After all, it was then that equal-rights activists were campaigning for the umpteenth time to keep a non-discrimination law on the books.
To fend off wild Sodom and Gomorrah claims made by some notorious righties, part of the message was that the law did not, and would not, have anything to do with gay marriage.
Those in the know, however, were well aware that the law had both nothing and everything to do with gay marriage — every piece of pro-gay legislation is another piece of the treasure map, and, in Maine, activists aren’t at all squirrelly about their plan now.
“Marriage,” Betsy Smith, the executive director of Equality Maine, says confidently when asked what her group’s plan is for the future. She even offers a timetable: three to five years.
Smith and Darlene Huntress, who runs the group’s public-policy operation, have reason to be optimistic. Last week, grudgingly conservative New Hampshire enshrined civil unions into law, making the Granite State the fifth in the US to pass some sort of same-sex couple law.
New Hampshire joins Vermont, Connecticut, and New Jersey, who all provide civil unions, and Massachusetts, where gay couples can get married.
However, the road each state took to obtain “spousal” rights has been different, and the results have been mixed. Moreover, most of the states obtained civil unions as a compromise when pro-marriage folks asked to be officially wed, and those activists haven’t stopped their push for full equality. For instance, court cases pending in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Vermont could make full-on marriage a reality in the short term.
In Massachusetts, activists this month will try to stymie a constitutional amendment that would overturn gay marriage there, and, now that the state’s governor is no longer a wizard of the Mormon Church, a 1913 law may also be overturned that prevents couples from other states being married in Massachusetts.
All that, say Smith and Huntress, means that Maine is biding its time.
“The truth is, we don’t know what the plan is because the earth is constantly shifting around us, from New Jersey to Connecticut to Massachusetts to pending marriage bills in Vermont to Maryland. There’s even one in Iowa,” says Smith. “This issue shifts more than the non-discrimination stuff ever did.”
And that means that strategy shifts as well. Still, there really are only two ways to fight this battle: legislation or litigation, and Equality Maine says they are keeping their options open.
“Sometime in the near future we would love to have marriage equality, maybe in the next three to five years, but how we are going to do it, we won’t know until we get closer to those three to five years,” Smith says.
Indeed, the landscape of gay marriage does continue to change, and Huntress warns that New Hampshire might not necessarily be the best bellwether for predicting what could happen — or what activists want — in Maine.
“We know civil unions don’t work in a real world, only marriage works in a real world. And New Hampshire is different,” says Huntress, noting that, like New Jersey, Connecticut, and Vermont, New Hampshire actually started with a push for marriage.
“But the message we are hearing is that is all sounds very final, like ‘hooray, we got civil unions.’ I suspect New Hampshire couples will find that they also will be denied some rights (like they have in Connecticut and New Jersey), but it’s interesting how that’s playing out.”
Smith also notes that Mainers shouldn’t feel too bad that New Hampshire beat us again.
“For the first time in decades, New Hampshire has become a lot bluer. Plus, when they passed their non-discrimination law in 1997 they didn’t have to worry about it being repealed because they don’t have a referendum process,” says Smith. “That means they could get started working on marriage ten years ago, and that’s what they’ve been doing. This didn’t come out of nowhere. If we had passed our non-discrimination law, and there was no repeal process, we would have been able to work on this issue since 1998.”
That doesn’t mean all the work has been for naught. Huntress and Smith agree that the informational campaigns waged around non-discrimination bills in 1997, 2000, and 2005 nicely dovetail what they call an all-out campaign for marriage right now.
“We are in a campaign — talking to voters, coalition partners, legislators — we are in campaign mode, but it’s just an education campaign,” says Smith. “Whether it’s two months, two years, or five years, whether we go through the legislature or through litigation, we know that we have to change public opinion in order to win either way. We don’t want to be a state that just waits for a court to have an opinion.”