There was a time in the United States’ not too distant political past when the presence on the ballot of any issue involving gay rights was employed as a pretext to get social conservatives to the polls to vote it down -- and support conservative candidates as well. Not anymore, as the passage of marriage equality issues on state ballots demonstrated this past Tuesday. The trail blazed by Massachusetts is becoming increasingly well-worn.
Going into Tuesday, same-sex marriage had never been approved at the ballot box in 32 tries. That was to change dramatically. In Maine, voters overturned a 2009 referendum that quashed a gay-marriage law enacted by the Legislature. In Maryland and Washington, opponents of marriage equality laws passed by their legislatures and signed by their governors placed referendum questions opposing the laws on the ballot, but in both cases, voters backed the laws. In Minnesota, voters responded in the negative to a question asking if a ban on gay marriage should be placed in the state Constitution.
There was a certain inevitability to these votes as attitudes toward gay Americans have been changing significantly, quickly, and for the better. Although a latecomer to the cause of gay rights, President Obama has advanced it by ending the military’s abhorrent "Don’t ask, don’t tell policy" forcing gay soldiers to hide in the closet, by announcing his support of gay marriage and by instructing the Justice Department to end its defense of the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act, which is being challenged in court by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. Not incidentally, on Tuesday Wisconsin voters made Democrat Tammy Baldwin the first openly gay U.S. senator.
Massachusetts pioneered this social experiment in 2004, and in the eight years since has destroyed all the sky-is-falling arguments made against same-sex marriage. It has not weakened the institution of marriage, which is statistically stronger in Massachusetts than it is in the nation as a whole, which has long been the case. It has not opened the door to polygamy and bestiality as predicted by failed Republican senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The gay marriage law has instead allowed loving same-sex couples to commit to marriage, a civilizing institution, and as such, conservatives should actually applaud it. At any rate, the Massachusetts example has made it easy for other states to follow suit, and more are sure to do so in the years ahead.
To young people growing up comfortably with the concept of homosexuality, opposition to gay marriage seems as pointless and cruel as did the miscegenation laws banning inter-racial marriage (in effect in some southern states as late as 1967) did to their parents and grandparents. They are right to think so, and the day is coming when Americans will look back in puzzlement and shame at government efforts to prevent gay marriage just as we look back in dismay at the despicable laws against inter-racial marriage.
As the Republican Party looks for ways to rebound from Tuesday’s election defeats it should consider abandoning failed, unpopular efforts to keep minorities, young people and others likely to vote Democratic away from the polls by passage of transparently partisan laws and instead find ways of appealing to those groups -- and then encouraging them to vote. Republicans can start this process by catching up with America’s growing approval of the right of gay couples to participate in the institution of marriage.