international analysis and commentary

Same-sex marriage in the US and the race to 2012


Starting July 24th, same-sex couples in New York will be granted the right to legally wed. Their marriages will be entitled to the same protections, at least at the state level, long enjoyed by heterosexual marriages (because the federal government does not yet recognize same-sex marriage, there remain some 1,138 federal rights and benefits that will still not apply to same-sex spouses). This is the result of a landmark legislation approved by the New York state legislature in late June. While Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo played an important role in getting the bill through, it was the unlikely support of four Republican state senators that pushed it over the top.

This is the latest twist in a long battle that has pitted the gay rights movement against a host of conservative organizations that fight to preserve the idea of marriage as, exclusively, the union between a man and a woman. But it is unlikely to put an end to this often-polarizing debate, which could once again turn into a full-blown issue in the 2012 presidential elections. 

“What happened in New York adds real momentum to the work of ending marriage discrimination,” says Evan Wolfson, President and founder of Freedom to Marry, a national campaign in support of same-sex marriage. New York is now the sixth state (plus the District of Columbia) to allow same-sex marriage, alongside Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. But the New York same-sex marriage bill more than doubles the number of American citizens who live in a state where gays and lesbians are free to marry. Because of the size and relevance of this state, where the modern gay rights movement was born more than forty years ago, the passage of the bill is bound to boost the efforts of activists across the country, in both the pro- and against-gay marriage camps, and revamp a debate that had been somewhat dormant at the national level.

“It was a political defeat for advocates of traditional marriage,” says Chuck Donovan of the Heritage Foundation and former Executive Vice President of the Family Research Council, a Christian organization that promotes the “traditional family unit.” While New York is a democratic-leaning state, full of socially liberal “Rockefeller Republicans,” the same-sex marriage legislation passed thanks to what Donovan calls a “stunning reversal” by a few GOP legislators who had been elected on the promise to oppose same-sex marriage and changed their minds at the very last minute.

To assess the long-term political impact of the passage of the bill, the first thing to do will be to track what happens to these Republicans when they are up for re-election.

The little-known Conservative Party, which is rather influential in New York and on whose support Republican candidates rely to win elections, has threatened to oppose the GOP senators who voted in favor of the same-sex marriage legislation. The National Organization for Marriage, one of the country’s leading anti-gay marriage organizations, has already launched a four-year plan to repeal the bill by ousting the lawmakers who supported it in favor of others that can be relied upon to oppose it.

It would not be the first time that a victory for the gay-rights movement produces a backlash from conservative activists.

In a 2003 decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Court established the constitutional right to marry for same-sex couples. Fearing that similar judicial actions could be taken in other states, conservative advocates quickly organized. In the 2004 elections they managed to successfully put anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendments on the ballot in thirteen states. Sixteen more have since followed. Today, twenty-nine state constitutions out of fifty ban same-sex marriage. 

At the public opinion level, there is little doubt that the tide is turning in favor of same-sex marriage. According to a Quinnipiac poll, in New York in 2004, 37% of residents supported the right of same-sex couples to wed. This year, 58% are in favor. The same trend is reflected in national polls. According to Gallup, in 2004 only 42% of voters supported same-sex marriage, while 55% opposed it. In 2011 the numbers are reversed, with 53% of Americans who say they favor it and only 45% who say they are against it.

But while the New York state legislature has been quick to transform voter sentiment into law, things on the national stage lag behind.

The Republican Party stands almost unanimously against same-sex marriage. Each one of the contenders for the 2012 GOP nomination, with the exception of maybe former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, opposes civil unions for gay couples, let alone marriage. And while the libertarian wing of the party, led by Texas Congressman Ron Paul, may embrace the conservative defense of same-sex marriage (according to which the government should have no say in private matters), Christian conservative activists, who exercise a disproportionate influence in the primary selection process, are dead set against it. According to a poll conducted in June by the Des Moines Register, 60% of Iowa Republicans would oppose a candidate who comes out in support of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.

On the Democratic side, things are less clear. President Obama, in particular, is struggling to define his official position. So far, the President has sided with the view that marriage is up to the states to regulate and that it is not the role of the federal government to intervene (a slightly awkward stance for the son of a white woman and a black man, whose marriage, at the time of Obama’s birth, was technically illegal in a number of states because of state-based segregation laws). At the same time, the President has been saying that his stance on same-sex marriage is “evolving”. In February, he also instructed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act (a law signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, which allows individual states the right to not recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere) in court. 

Gay rights groups, who strongly supported Obama in 2008, are urging him to come out in favor of same-sex marriage. “I don’t think it’s about gay people only,” says Wolfson. “I think it’s about young people, progressives, millennials, who want to see the President on the side of fairness.” Wolfson believes that a more forceful stance in support of gay marriage would not only translate in more votes for Obama, but also help re-energize the young voters who mobilized for him three years ago but who seem to have become disaffected since.

At the same time, Obama probably fears losing moderates.

“It is guaranteed to be an issue in 2012,” says Donovan, especially in the general elections, that will be decided in a handful of swing states – Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan – which have all enacted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. In these blue-collar, socially conservative states, anti-gay marriage activists are likely to try to mobilize voters on the basis of this issue.

The political climate, in the not so distant future, could become similar to the one surrounding abortion rights, a possibility that should worry gay rights groups. For many years, a silent majority of Americans was supportive of abortion rights, while a small, but well-organized and dedicated minority of Christian conservatives continued to fight to limit, or eliminate, them. The many years of vocal lobbying appear to be paying off for the conservative front. According to a Gallup Poll from May, for the first time in sixteen years, a majority of voters, 51%, called themselves pro-life, while only 42% said they were “pro-choice”. Just a year ago, 50% were in favor of abortion rights and only 44% against them. He who screams the loudest, it appears, often gets his way.