What a difference four years makes.
Four years ago on the post-election morning, marriage-equality proponents were struggling to make sense of the Prop. 8 loss. Sure, gays had lost dozens of times at the ballot box—indeed, in every state where marriage rights had been put to a popular vote—but California?
Now it appears that pro-equality forces won in all four states where marriage was on the ballot last night: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. (In three of those states voters directly gave same-sex couples the right to marry; in Minnesota, voters blocked an anti-same-sex-marriage constitutional amendment.) There will be a lot of celebrating among among proponents of same-sex marriage, as there should be. With nine states and the District of Columbia now allowing same-sex couples to marry (and California likely to rejoin their ranks before long), the momentum is palpable. What’s more, voters re-elected a sitting president who endorsed marriage equality and elected (or retained seats for) pro-equality candidates in various other races—including the first out lesbian in the Senate, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
But there’s much work left to be done.
It’s a big country, and most states suffer under anti-gay constitutional amendments passed in previous elections. Undoing those amendments is a necessary challenge. Yesterday’s results are certainly encouraging on the front: It was only two years ago that Maine voters, who supported the freedom to marry 53-47 percent last night, voted to revoke equal marriage rights in that state. Could anti-gay constitutional amendments that were passed by popular vote be repealed by popular vote within a decade or less? Hopefully, we will soon find out.
We will also find out what the U.S. Supreme Court will do in response to challenges to Prop. 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. The justices watched the returns last night, and will read the newspaper this morning. They can see the direction that the country is moving, and moving fast. That momentum will likely have an impact on their jurisprudence—and it is the pro-equality movement’s responsibility to ensure that it does.
Yet marriage isn’t just a legal right—it’s also a social institution. It is one thing for the state to allow you to marry, and quite another for your parents to show up at your wedding and be happy for you. Both are significant. The educational efforts that have been chipping away at political opposition need to expand so that they address the ongoing cultural opposition. Simply dismissing such opposition as “on the wrong side of history” will do little to help the kids who continue to hear it from their parents, teachers, and pastors. To put it simply, we shouldn’t let the recent political momentum obscure the fact that vast portions of the country still believe—and teach their children—that same-sex love is inferior, sick, perverted, or worse.
But besides being a fundamental legal right and an important social institution, marriage is, at its heart, a personal commitment. That requires some public attention, too. The fear that sustains anti-equality forces is born, in part, from genuine problems being experienced by the institution of marriage. Marriage is hard. Commitment is challenging. Parenthood is an awesome responsibility. We should not be surprised that people feel anxious about the state of marriage even as we criticize them for misdirecting their efforts to save it.
When David Blankenhorn, a longtime same-sex marriage opponent and key witness in favor of Prop. 8, switched sides in favor of marriage equality this past summer, he expressed his hope that different sides in this culture war might try a new strategy of working together to strengthen marriage culture. It was a good idea which promptly got lost in the various political battles which dominated the pre-election news cycle.
The election is over. The pro-equality forces won, and won big. But the fight for marriage is a long game.
John Corvino is chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage.