NATIONAL Democrats and pundits make a mistake if they walk away from the presidential election results deciding that the issue of marriage equality is radioactive. Yes, the ballot initiatives in 11 states banning same-sex marriage won decisively, even in Oregon. And many of the initiatives are particularly punitive, perhaps prohibiting even private industry from providing health benefits or bereavement leave.
But these lopsided tallies should be viewed alongside the election results in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont. Yes, these are blue states. But they, too, have been embroiled in the conversation about marriage equality, a conversation that has become more nuanced as voters have seen the reality of gay families.
In the immediate aftermath of enacting civil unions, an antigay campaign called "Take Back Vermont" swept the state. Barns were covered in hand-painted murals. A high school gay/straight alliance group was threatened. And in the 2000 elections, it worked, sending 17 pro-civil union incumbents back home. But Democrats didn't bury their heads in the sand. Instead, they worked to recruit strong candidates. And on Tuesday, 17 legislative seats were picked up, all of them supporting civil unions, with three of them openly gay.
To the south, in East Haven, Conn., the antigay Family Institute of Connecticut focused on running a candidate to oust Representative Mike Lawlor, the Assembly's strongest supporter of marriage equality. His well-funded opponent had one message -- he opposed same-sex marriage. The result? Lawlor won by a 5-to-1 margin. Additionally, two vitriolic antigay incumbents were defeated, proving that voters had lost patience with a message of discrimination.
In Massachusetts, Senator Marian Walsh won reelection despite being targeted for opposing a constitutional amendment to deny marriage rights. In another marriage-dominated race, Representative Kathy Teahan easily beat back a challenge by former representative Ned Kirby, who is best remembered for his constant antigay attacks. But what might have worked in the '80s got soundly rejected in this century. In short, all 50 pro-equality incumbents won reelection, and of the eight open seats, six were won by those who oppose a discriminatory constitutional amendment.
While it is true that those backing the amendment also won reelection in the general election, they were returned by much smaller margins than those supporting marriage equality. In Massachusetts, it's fair to say that with a few exceptions, local elections rightly hinged on local issues.
Why the difference here? Because voters have had the opportunity to live beside their newly married gay neighbors, and by and large, they have come to realize that marriage equality does not threaten them. And those who have gay family members or friends have come to appreciate how profound it is to be treated fairly and equally under the law.
It's entirely too simplistic to pin Tuesday's national results on the fight for marriage equality. Even President Bush, obviously concerned about the moderate middle, came out in support of civil unions in the final days. Most significant, 62 percent of Americans left the polls favoring some sort of relationship recognition, from marriage to civil unions to domestic partnership. Many split their vote -- voting for Bush but also favoring some recognition. Most of them came to that conclusion without the benefit of a deep and real dialogue on marriage. One could argue that they came to that decision in the midst of an onslaught of antigay rhetoric.
What we did learn from this election is that if voters have the opportunity to really explore the issue, they move toward marriage equality, not away from it. At a minimum, once they see how ending marriage discrimination affects their family, friends, and neighbors, they don't turn their backs on candidates or incumbents on this single issue.
Did the voters cite "moral values" as they left their polling places? Yes, but abortion and guns were cited more often than marriage, and it appears that those voters were equally troubled by the Viagra ads that play during "Everyone Loves Raymond." Cable television and its programming also took a big hit. Is it any surprise, then, that simplifying the results to marriage makes it easier if you happen to be an industry lobbyist in Washington or work with a right-wing institution?
The quest for marriage equality certainly won't go away. But the more balanced, informed lesson for Democrats or anyone who cares about issues of equality might be more education, not less; more conversation, not less; and a dialogue that stresses the value and importance of equality in this country.
Mary Bonauto, the civil rights director of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, was an attorney in both the Vermont and Massachusetts marriage cases. Marty