Lots of encouraging things happened Tuesday.
Elections are always dicey propositions. People’s votes are affected by so many imponderables—I’d love to think, as someone who teaches public policy, that voters make their decisions after considering contending positions and evaluating them, but we all know better. Especially when measures affecting the lives of GLBT people are at issue, fear and homophobia and religious fanaticism have historically made a noxious—and effective—brew.
But not this year.
On Tuesday, same-sex marriage referenda were on the ballots in four states. In Washington, Maine and Maryland, voters endorsed marriage equality. In Minnesota, for the first time ever, they defeated an anti-marriage amendment.
Voters also reelected the first President who ever publicly supported the freedom to marry, along with a number of gay and gay-friendly legislators. In Wisconsin, they elected the first “out” United States Senator in American history. In a victory that particularly pleased me, Iowa voters rejected an effort to retire another of the Supreme Court justices who voted with the majority in that state’s freedom to marry case.
Now, let me be clear about one thing: fundamental rights should never be put to a vote of the electorate in the first place. No one got to vote on whether the government should recognize my marriage, and it is constitutionally improper to give me the power to vote on anyone else’s. But since, as usual, no one listens to me and my “ilk,” those decisions were put to a vote. They had to be dealt with.
Before November 6th, I think it is fair to say that most GLBT activists would have been happy to see a win of just one of these four ballot measures. The advance of marriage rights has thus far depended primarily upon the courts and occasionally legislatures—before now, every time the issue has been put to a popular vote, the gay community has lost. Winning one of these measures would have been hailed as real progress, a break in the drumbeat of constant popular defeat. Two would have been real cause for celebration. I think it is accurate to say that no one expected to win all four.
So there was a lot to cheer about in this year’s election. Bigotry lost across the board, not just anti-gay bigotry. Despite a distressing amount of racism directed toward the President, he won handily. Latinos flexed their electoral muscles. Women refused to be sent barefoot and pregnant back to the kitchen.
As elated as many of us are, however, it is well to remember that elections are just signals of change, not change agents. A lot of people who thought that Obama’s 2008 election would usher in a new era were disappointed because they failed to understand the way the system (not to mention reality) works. We don’t elect monarchs in the United States. Checks and balances mean that no matter what the intentions of the people we put in office, in order to implement the policies they champion, they must work through systems that were intended to force negotiation and compromise—systems that aren’t working very well right now. Voting was just the beginning. Changing the world takes time—and more effort than most of us realize.
But right now, we’re entitled to take some time to savor the results of this election. We’re entitled to entertain the possibility—indeed, the probability—that America has turned an important corner, and that genuine equality for gays and lesbians is closer than it has ever been.
Right now, it’s time for high fives.