Last week’s gay marriage victory in the New York State Senate was important for many reasons. First, it was the first time a legislative body with a Republican majority passed such a measure. Second, adding New York more than doubled the number of Americans living in states with marriage equality. Third, New York’s lack of an initiative process – unlike California or Maine – means this victory is now safe, as New Yorkers will live to realize that the world hasn’t ended.
But finally, New York shifts the political momentum that eluded supporters for over a year – and allows marriage equality activists to re-focus their efforts on states within reach; winnable battles that had been top priorities – but had disappointing results. In the past week, we have seen court action in New Jersey and a legislative victory in Rhode Island. And today, Equality Maine is launching a campaign to collect signatures to put marriage equality on the November 2012 ballot.
When 53% of Maine voters overturned a gay marriage law in late 2009, it blunted momentum of what had been an historic year for marriage equality – with Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire having all joined earlier that year. Subsequent legislative defeats in New York and New Jersey only further turned it back. Earlier this year, marriage equality advocates failed to pass a bill in Rhode Island and Maryland – and now face the prospect of fighting against another constitutional amendment in Minnesota.
But since November 2009, Equality Maine has been busy at work doing research on the election results – and what they can do to win next time. Without the pressure of a short campaign season, organizers have engaged rural communities who voted against gay marriage before – and the results have been encouraging. Now, emboldened by our victory in New York, it is time to go back to the ballot in 2012.
One reason why we lost Maine in 2009 was that young voters who turn out in droves during presidential election years did not come out in enough numbers to get a victory. Spending the next 16 months to prepare for another presidential election cycle should be the recipe for Maine to be the first state in America where the voters affirm gay marriage. Maine has a history of gay rights measures that require going back to the ballot multiple times to prevail. With an organized effort for 2012, we can prevail the second time.
Granted, gay marriage advocates across the country are nervous about returning to the ballot – as we’ve seen here in California, with the endless debate about when to repeal Proposition 8. I have even gone so far as to say we must be unapologetic about going to states that have no initiative process – in order to prove “middle America” they have nothing to fear about committed couples who want to strengthen the institution of marriage. That was the approach we took in New York, but there are only so many states like that.
Inevitably, we will have to go back to the ballot – especially in states where there has been a concerted effort to learn from past mistakes, and help change hearts and minds.