About Those Referenda….

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.


  1. The question now in Indiana is whether or not an overwealming majority of GOP legislators are paying any attention. Nobody expects them to even give a hearing to a same-sex marriage or civil union proposal anytime soon. And many aren’t as comfortable as you and I are with what they consider “unelected activist judges making law”. But do GOP lawmakers really want a state constitutional amendment that now also would prohibit future lawmakers from dealing with even the most modest proposals…banning any recognition of anything “substantially similar” to marriage? Do they really know what they are doing?

  2. There is nowhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights giving control or protecting our sex lives, so why is the government in our beds? Separation of church and state has been lost as we have viewed in the recent campaign; there were numerous religious beliefs of others forced upon us. While the reelection of President Obama is to be viewed as a “winner”; he is in the same bag of tricks regarding the Republican controlled House that will continue stopping any and all bills Democrats propose. With Bush’s tax cuts for wealthy due to end in January; is this automatic or will the House again take over and force continuation of President Obama’s biggest mistake by continuing them beyond the two year limit he set? We have only changed some names and faces in the Senate and House; we have not changed numbers and numbers rule over names and faces every time. So; will we again be deadlocked for four more years or will newly elected and sitting administration see that this country wants change – not a continuation of marching in place?

  3. Wow! It’s “Dewey defeats Truman” all over again. British tabloid “Daily Mail” reports that Romney staffer releases win web site after Romney had conceded.

    Great line in “The Onion”. Romney congratulates the President with what appears to be “the last lie of his campaign”.

  4. As with the issue of States Rights and Abortion, the modern world makes conflict predictable if each State chose a world of marriage for itself. Marriage is a Federal issue because travel between States and residence issues between States is constant commerce. Without guaranteed reciprocity from your home State, travel restrictions and restraint of interstate trade will occur if married people in the eyes of one State can’t receive equal treatment under the law of another State. When Indiana restricts its definition of marriage, it will force those who can to relocate elsewhere while those who can’t will be forced to illegality and to satisify their requirements extra-legally. This will not stand for long before the courts fill with cases and national law catches up to this injustice.

  5. All very true, Gary, although in Indiana I think too many folks both within the LGBT community and its allies, seem to think that since ultimately the Supreme Court will rule favorably, they don’t need to be all that concerned about HRJ-6. A favorable decision from SCOTUS is far from being a slam dunk, and might, for example, apply only to California (Proposition 8).

  6. I don’t think it’s HRJ-6 that people aren’t worried about. I believe it’s the rule of the land that is the wall people see when discussion of HRJ-6 comes up. We are a red state, both houses are a red majority, so it’s no doubt that they will indeed vote on this and then leave it up to the people. I am a firm believer it will ultimately come down to the high courts to either uphold state law or it will be a unconstitutional ruling that will have to come from the supreme. Agreed though, I believe the only ruling this year would be strictly on Prop 8, unless they choose to not be bothered by this at a later date and make a ruling on DOMA as a whole. Buy that’s asking for a miracle.

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