Gay Marriage: Back as ’Hot Button’ Issue?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday June 4, 2009

Divisive social questions may be seeing a resurgence after a brief lull in voter interest, according to a June 4 article that lists abortion, affirmative action, and--of course--marriage equality as among the so-called "hot button" issues that voters seemed less interested in as they headed to last year's elections, given the dire state of the economy and the ongoing global financial crisis.

But social questions--and those who flog them to voters--have a way of renewing their own supply of energy, even in the face of more urgent issues. The article suggested that it was only necessary to scratch the surface of the body politic with a series of recent events--the legalization of marriage equality in five states in rapid succession; the nomination of a female Latina candidate for the Supreme Court; the shooting death of an abortion provider in a Kansas church--for the perennial hot button issues to gain new life.

The marriage equality question has perhaps the highest profile, and the lowest chance to generate more than moderate heat and few, if any, sparks. Even as a recent Gallup poll showed that Americans were becoming more conservative on certain issues, such as abortion, there's been a marked shift in the social and political climate, such that marriage equality is increasingly seen as the due of gay and lesbian families--though not everyone wants to see marriage per se granted to such "non-traditional" families, and many support civil unions rather than out and out marriage equality.

In California, the state's Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8 on May 26. Proposition 8 is a ballot initiative that squeaked by at the ballot box last November, after its supporters spent tens of millions of dollars to convince voters that marriage equality would lead to all sorts of unintended consequences for children and religious freedoms.

A simpler and more effective means of addressing such concerns might have been to support legislation to address specific areas that had people worried; as it turned out, however, marriage was the target of the effort, and when the 18,000 families who wed were allowed to remain wed there was audible chagrin from marriage opponents, even though future marriages are on hold until the day the measure, which amended the state's constitution, is repealed.

An effort to do just that is already underway; indeed, the Sacramento Bee reported on that effort the same day as the Supreme Court announced its ruling. The first major question that supporters of the effort to restore marriage parity had to answer was whether to pursue a ballot initiative next year, or wait until 2012. The article suggested that indications were that the measure would be set before California voters sooner, rather than later.

In Maine, where marriage equality was legalized by way of a bill that also set out specific protections for religious faiths, assurances of freedom to worship were not enough: religious groups are still determined to revoke the right of gay and lesbian families to wed.

A June 4 article in the Bangor Daily News reported that Matthew Dunlop, Maine's Secretary of State, had approved the text of a proposed ballot initiative intended to deprive gay and lesbian families of the now-extant right to marry in that state.

The question reads, "Do you want to reject the new law that lets same-sex couples marry and allows individuals and religious groups to refuse to perform these marriages?"

Supporters of the proposed measure include the usual anti-gay religious groups, such as Portland's Roman Catholic Diocese and the Christian Civic League of Maine (which changed its name to the Maine Family Policy Council), as well as Maine Marriage Initiative.

If supporters get enough signatures, voters will see the question on the ballot this coming November. If not, the question will likely appear in 2010.

But pro-marriage advocates expressed the opinion that voter support for the so-called "people's veto" would not be great. The article quoted Equality Maine executive director Betsy Smith, who said, "We are confident that Maine people will vote to uphold this law, which grants equality to all Maine couples, and we are looking forward to continuing the conversation with Maine people about the importance of this new law."

Added Smith, "Tens of thou-sands of Maine voters have already shown their support for marriage equality."

The executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, Shenna Bellows, cited the fact that the bill that granted Maine residents full marriage parity was co-sponsored by 60 state lawmakers.

Said Bellows, "We are confident that Mainers, if they are asked to vote on it, will back the new law.

"We will be talking with people, neighbor to neighbor... and we are confident we will prevail."

In Iowa, the only non-New England state where marriage equality is currently legal, anti-gay groups have pledged to work for a constitutional amendment similar to the one that rescinded marriage rights in California.

But the pronouncement of the great return of the hot button social issue may be premature. Analysts, pundits, and party leaders have pointed to a disconnect between traditional Republican values such as personal responsibility and limited governmental interference in private life, and the big-government ambitions of the social and religious right wing, who have begun to use the legislative process to strip rights away from families and individuals as well as to block the road to greater individual freedom.

That disconnect, say party critics, is what cost the Republicans the last election. In other words, with the global financial meltdown still in full swing and the pinch being felt where it counts--in the pocketbook--America's voters may not be as willing to cast their lot with the noisiest and most demonizing platform on offer. Instead of voting against the rights of others families, voters may find themselves more concerned with legislation that has an actual beneficial effect for their own families.

This point was more or less made in a May 4 Fox Forum posting by Lanny Davis, who compared the GOP to "The Incredible Shrinking Man," a science fiction movie in which a man is reduced in size until he is literally washed down the drain.

However, wrote Davis, "The Republican Party cannot blame radiation and insecticide for its shrinkage. Sooner or later, it will have to face up to the reality that its problems are not a result of bad political strategy or communications, the current most popular self-deluding rationalizations.

"Rather, the shrinkage is primarily due to two facts about the current Religious Right-dominated Republican Party: unpopular ideas and bad attitudes."

Davis cited Sen. Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, who reacted to the defection of longtime Republican senator Arlen Specter to the Democratic side of the aisle with the opinion that, "There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority party while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party."

Snowe identified the problem as too close an affiliation with right-wing absolutists: "It was when we began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of our basic tenets that we encountered an electoral backlash."

Davis drew a lesson from this, warning that "sanctimonious" elements at both political extremes were more willing to lose elections than to compromise and attempt to work together with ideological rivals--and that voters were getting fed up with it.

"Another prediction," wrote Davis. "The incredibly shrinking Republican Party will find a way to shrink even further, as it expends even more energy in an intra-party civil war between the far right and the far, far right.

"The result: After the 2010 congressional elections, Democrats will have a filibuster-proof Senate majority with 62 or 63 members."

Politics is a notoriously unpredictable field, given to stretches of stasis punctuated by sudden reversals and innovations, but even so, social issues and hot buttons are unlikely ever to vanish.

For GLBT Americans, the interesting part of the nest year or so might be to see how much--or how little--their private affairs remain the fixation of politicians and politically active groups operating in the public sphere.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.