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View from Washington Bellwether


The LGBT community may have lost Maine, but overall equality activists went two-for-three on the week after voters in Kalamazoo, MI, affirmed a pro-LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance and the electorate in Washington became the first in the nation to approve expansive domestic partnership rights that were billed as "everything but marriage" for gay couples.

Let's be clear about the significance of Washington's Referendum-71. While the movement has lost 31 straight referenda on marriage rights, it can now claim a bellwether vote that signifies public opinion is tipping toward equality rather than away from it - even if the public is still wrestling with the word "marriage" itself.

The vote also delivered the third "first" of the year for same-sex unions: Iowa was the first state in the nation's heartland to legalize marriage, Vermont became the first state to approve it legislatively, and now Washington has stepped up as the first state to affirm gay relationship rights by popular vote.

But Washington offers yet another insight that is starting to firm up in my mind as a potential trend on the path to marriage. While a majority of the general public still hedges on using the word "marriage" to describe gay unions, majorities also favor providing some form of legal recognition to same-sex couples. And in states that have enacted civil unions or strong domestic partnerships first, the movement toward full marriage rights usually follows, though not without exception.

Take Vermont, the first state in the nation to enact civil unions by judicial fiat back in 2000 - nine years later the state legislature felt so comfortable with advancing marriage rights that it produced the votes to actually override a veto from Governor Jim Douglas.

Then there's Connecticut, where lawmakers passed civil unions legislation in 2005, making it the second state to recognize such unions. A mere three years later, the state's high court ruled that same-sex couples deserved nothing less than full equality and legalized same-sex marriage.

The model actually bears some relevance in California and Maine too, right up until the point when voters stripped gay couples of their marriage rights. In California, voters weighed in just several months after the state Supreme Court had deemed the right to marry "fundamental" - the nation's strongest legal ruling for same-sex marriage from a high court at the time.

But that decision didn't surface out of the blue. Although voters passed language banning gay marriage in California in 2000, the Golden State has had domestic partnerships on the books since 1999 and has steadily strengthened them over the last decade. The state legislature also approved legalizing same-sex marriage twice only to have the bills vetoed as many times by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The point is, while no civil union or domestic partnership will ever equate to full marriage rights, they do provide an introduction to a conversation that many Americans are just starting to grapple with in a serious way. And as voters get used to seeing gay commitment ceremonies, LGBT-headed households and their well-adjusted kids, at some point that discussion flips from "why marriage?" to "why not?"

Let's remember that even California voters, before being flooded with an $85 million ballot campaign, had tilted toward full equality following the court's landmark ruling on May 15, 2008. A California field poll released two weeks later on May 28 showed that the state's registered voters favored gay marriage rights 51 to 42 -- the first time the poll had logged a majority support for marriage equality in 30 years.

So what happened in California? Far too many things to mention for the purposes of this column, but I do believe that the scare tactics employed by antigay conservatives charging that same-sex marriage would be taught to kids in school has proven lethally effective in both California and Maine. Underneath the success of those ads is a fear factor that the LGBT movement has not yet found a way to assuage.

Of course, fear is always best vanquished by familiarity, and lesser forms of same-sex unions seem to provide people with a way to test the waters on a concept that is still foreign to many.

More ballot measures are sure to come and they may indeed yield more losses to mourn, but Washington state proved that equality is on the march in a war whose outcome is certain even if its timeline is not.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Kerry Eleveld