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December 21, 2012 Articles

Same-Sex Marriage: Redefining the Movement

By Emily Babcock

The balance has been tipped. For the first time in history, more than half of Americans support same-sex marriage. In four states, that support bore out at the polls during the November election. Same-sex marriage was on the ballot in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. In an election that was unlike every popular election before it, the majority of the electorate in these states showed that they supported same-sex marriage. In three states—Maine, Maryland, and Washington—voters approved ballot measures legalizing same-sex marriage. In Minnesota, voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have enshrined its current law—that marriage is between one man and one woman—in the state's constitution.

This shift redefines the movement. Prior to this election, no state had ever legalized same-sex marriage by popular vote. Moreover, no proposed amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman had ever been defeated. (Anti-same-sex-marriage amendments had passed in more than 30 statewide votes.) Not only did these historic firsts occur, they occurred across the board in all states considering the issue. The idea that marriage equality could be won by popular vote, rather than exclusively through the courts or the state legislatures, separates the same-sex marriage movement from other civil-rights movements before it.

Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington
Maine is perhaps the best example of the change in tide. In 2009, a referendum invalidated a legislative decision to allow gay marriage. (The vote was 53 percent to 47 percent.) Just three years later in another referendum, voters approved gay marriage. (The vote was 54 percent to 46 percent.)

In a referendum in Maryland, voters upheld a state law passed earlier in the year legalizing same-sex marriage. (The vote was 52 percent to 48 percent.) In Minnesota, voters rejected a proposed anti-marriage amendment. (The vote was 51 percent to 49 percent.) In a referendum in Washington, voters approved a law passed earlier in the year legalizing same-sex marriage. (The vote was 53 percent to 47 percent.)

Other Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Victories
In addition to same-sex marriage wins, there were other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) victories in the 2012 election. Tammy Baldwin became the first LGBT-identified US senator when Wisconsin voters elected her this election. President Obama—the first sitting president to publicly announce his support for gay marriage—was reelected. Justice David S. Wiggins, one of seven Iowa Supreme Court justices to legalize same-sex marriage in Iowa, was the first justice to survive a retention election following the controversial decision. (Three of the other justices were ousted in 2010.)

Reasons for the Change in Tide
Why was the 2012 election so much more successful for same-sex marriage advocates than 2010 or 2008? One possible reason for the change could be "increased exposure to gay people," according to ABC News' Elizabeth Hartfield in "Washington Approves Same-Sex Marriage, Marking Shift in Nation's Views," ABC News, Nov. 9, 2012. Indeed, exposure was a key strategy in all four states. Research shows that "knowing a gay person makes you 65 percent more likely to support same-sex marriage—and having a conversation with that gay person about marriage raises the figure to 80 percent." See Nathaniel Frank, "How Gay Marriage Finally Won at the Polls: The Inside Story Behind Victory in Maryland and Maine," Slate, Nov. 7, 2012.

According to an article in Slate, "[t]he gay rights movement succeeded using one of the most sophisticated issue campaign operations ever deployed—and by making it stick with old-fashioned commitment, hard work, and face-to-face conversations." Id. In Minnesota and Washington, for example, volunteers called undecided voters, or voters in favor of the amendment, and engaged them in personal conversations about the amendment. Volunteers were told to ask people what marriage means to them and share their stories of marriage. The movement was about having a conversation about the merits of marriage instead of the merits of equality. Richard Carlbom, the campaign manager for Minnesota United for All Families (the main group opposing the anti-marriage amendment in Minnesota) explained in an email to supporters that the victory was the result of a "statewide conversation about why marriage matters—to everyone."

This historic election will be celebrated by gay rights advocates as marking a change in tide in the movement. The victories were a result of state-by-state conversations about why marriage matters for gay and straight people and a concerted effort to increase the exposure of LGBT people. As the constitutional legal battles wage on, it's clear that the same-sex marriage movement is broader than the issue of whether LGBT people have a constitutional right to marry; it is about seeking (and increasingly receiving) acceptance by the American public. Although it is arguably an affront to LGBT civil rights to even subject the marriage decision to popular vote, it is nice to know that, at least for the time being, public opinion is on the side of equality. The 2012 election has redefined the movement.

Keywords: litigation, LGBT, same-sex marriage, 2012 election, marriage referenda, Washington, Minnesota, Maryland, Maine

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