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Looking to Maine


COMMENTARY: Maybe it was the cold weather. Or perhaps it was the rival protest across the park competing for the attention of passerby. Or maybe it was the oddity of seeing Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, sitting smugly on a nearby bench, letting loose a sly smile as she watched the anguished faces of those standing before her.

But these features of the hastily arranged rally yesterday in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle -- the focus for most of the city's earnest protests -- just exacerbated what was already a depressing moment for gay rights this week, when Maine voters chose to repeal the state's same-sex marriage law on Tuesday. There was, predictably, a great deal of anger, including the occasional f bomb. But the assembled Washingtonians were well behaved; certainly to the extent that Gallagher could feel safe sitting quietly by herself to watch the proceedings. So much for her complaints, registered shrilly and frequently in the wake of the success of Proposition 8 last year, that gay rights activists physically "intimidate" her and other opponents of marriage equality. If there was a horde of angry, violent lesbians out for her head, they were nowhere to be found that chilly October evening.

But perhaps the most disheartening, and telling, aspect of Tuesday's loss was the rude awakening offered by President Barack Obama's silence. In December of last year, responding to complaints over his selection of the controversial Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, Obama pledged to be "a fierce advocate for gay and lesbian Americans." It was a promise he had made repeatedly on the campaign trail, to the extent that he raised more money from gay donors than any other presidential candidate in American history. Yet that much-ballyhooed advocacy was nowhere in sight these past few months, as those hoping to maintain Maine's legislatively enacted law permitting gay marriage fought tooth and nail to keep it on the books.

That silence was shared by Obama's former campaign organization, Organizing for America, since subsumed by the Democratic National Committee. As blogger John Aravosis discovered, OFA did not mention the initiative in any of its literature or e-mails sent out to its supporters in Maine. Never mind the president -- as for the White House, it could only bring itself around to issuing a halfhearted statement after The Advocate's indefatigable Kerry Eleveld prodded them into offering some sort of explanation of where they stood. That mealymouthed statement, reiterating the president's logically untenable opposition to both gay marriage and ballot initiatives banning it, did not even mention Maine by name, nor did it include any reference to a similar battle in Washington state, where voters were given the opportunity to vote to uphold or repeal a law giving expanded domestic-partnership benefits to gay couples. That measure fortunately passed -- the first time that state-level benefits have been granted to gays by popular vote -- no thanks due, however, to the "fierce advocate" in the White House.

But Maine is where marriage was up for consideration, and it was there that the real gay rights battle of the year transpired. Maine is in solid blue New England territory, and given the recent marriage victories in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont, many predicted -- hubristically -- that similar fortune would befall them in the Pine Tree State.

That it did not is doubly depressing.

Still, the gloating by the likes of Gallagher will be short-lived. Yesterday, she told The New York Times, "Maine is one of the most secular states in the nation. It's socially liberal. They had a three-year head start to build their organization, and they outspent us two to one. If they can't win there, it really does tell you the majority of Americans are not on board with this gay marriage thing."

Gallagher may be right in her last assertion, but the number of voters opposing gay marriage declines with each successive poll, and all the data shows support for gay marriage trending higher with younger voters. According to census projections, Maine has the third-largest percentage of voters over the age of 65. Not only do these voters represent a critical mass of people who will be inclined to oppose gay marriage, they also will turn out to vote in higher numbers than younger citizens.

Such observations will not offer much consolation to the gay couples in Maine who saw such a basic civil right snatched from them by their fellow citizens. Nor will it provide succor to the nationwide advocates of marriage equality, gay and straight alike, who have banked so much on a state-by-state strategy. In the wake of the Maine defeat, many are beginning to question the wisdom of that approach and are looking with newfound hope to the federal lawsuit filed by superstar lawyers David Boies and Ted Olson challenging the legality of Proposition 8.

Bringing such a case to the Supreme Court is a risky plan that could reap massive dividends if it succeeds or tragic consequences if it fails. And while the local strategy may not have worked this time in Maine, it has worked thus far in several other states, and the results will only get better with time. Rest assured that the day will soon come when Maggie Gallagher won't be sitting quite so contentedly, smiling at the people whose rights she's spent so much effort to strip away.

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James Kirchick