Baltimore, Maryland – Barack Obama supports it. Dick Cheney’s for it. Six US states, from liberal Massachusetts to swing-state Iowa, allow it.
But same-sex marriage has had a miserable record at the ballot box: 0 for 32. When the issue has been put to American voters, never before have they chosen to sanction the practice.
On November 6, voters in the states of Maryland, Maine, and Washington will have a chance to end the streak – potentially granting as many as 14 million more Americans the right to marry someone of the same sex.
Support for gay marriage was low when pollsters first began to regularly ask about it in the 1990s. But polls show support has risen, and in recent years some surveys have even found a slim majority backing gay marriage. In May, Obama announced that he, too, now supports allowing same-sex couples to wed – the first sitting US president to have made such a statement.
Jamie Raskin, a state senator representing Maryland’s suburban Montgomery County, said he’s seen major shifts in sentiment on gay marriage in recent years. When he first ran for a Senate seat in 2006, he explained, “I talked about this in my announcement speech. And afterwards, several people said to me: ‘Why are you bringing up same-sex marriage? That’s really out there, and it’s never going to happen.’”
But the tide is turning, he said, in part due to a new crop of voters. “Young people just do not understand the basis for this discrimination.”
Advocates of same-sex marriage frame it as a civil rights issue. “All families deserve equal protection under the law,” says one advertisement in favour of gay marriage.
Supporters like Raskin also point out that the law has “robust religious protections”, shielding religious institutions and affiliated non-profits from lawsuits if they do not want to perform same-sex marriages.
Frank Schubert, a California-based political consultant, is leading the campaigns against gay marriage in the three states where legalisation is on the ballot.
The strategist had spent his career working on ballot measures affecting business interests. But his involvement in the successful struggle in 2008 to overturn California’s gay marriage law inspired him to work full-time on same-sex marriage and other social issues instead.
Schubert, who has a lesbian sister, told Al Jazeera that on a personal level, he’s “sympathetic to some sort of legal recognition of gay relationships – and certainly sympathetic to providing basic legal rights to same-sex couples”. But as a practicing Catholic, he says marriage should be strictly limited to “the union of a man and a woman”.
Is support overstated?
In the 1980s, political scientists noted that polls often overestimated the share of the vote that African American candidates received at the ballot box. The so-called “Bradley effect” – named after a black mayor of Los Angeles who lost a gubernatorial race despite leading in polls conducted just before the election – hypothesised that some white voters told pollsters they would vote for the black candidate because they did not want to appear to be bigoted.
“People are reluctant to tell a stranger on the phone how they’re going to vote on an issue when their position is considered to be politically incorrect.”
– Frank Schubert
Although a recent poll found 52 per cent of Marylanders support same-sex marriage, versus 43 per cent opposed, some suspect a corollary to the Bradley effect might be at work here.
Bryan Sears, a blogger who covers Maryland politics, said he’s “not convinced that the polling data is 100 per cent accurate – because I’m not sure people polled were 100 per cent honest”. He cites the case of California, where a ban on same-sex marriage passed in 2008 although polls had indicated it would narrowly fail.
Schubert thinks his side’s chances in Maryland are better than they appear. “People are reluctant to tell a stranger on the phone how they’re going to vote on an issue,” he said, “when their position is considered to be politically incorrect”.
The black vote
Maryland is a deep-blue Democratic state, and Obama crushed his Republican opponent John McCain here by 25 percentage points in 2008.
After Obama’s conversion on the issue, Raskin said he noticed a “sharp increase” in the number of blacks supporting same-sex marriage, and a “corresponding reduction in vitriolic attacks on same-sex marriage by certain ministers”. The NAACP, the biggest civil rights group in the US, followed suit, and one survey found a large jump in African American support for gay marriage in Maryland.
But Maryland’s status as a Democratic stronghold doesn’t ensure support for same-sex marriage. David Gaines, the pastor of Manna Bible Baptist Church in northwestern Baltimore, said he thinks the majority of his roughly 500 parishioners will vote against same-sex marriage.
Has Obama’s announcement changed the views of African American voters? “Yes, it has,” Gaines said without hesitation. “But not in the way he had hoped.” Obama’s announcement “awakened a sleeping giant”, Gaines told Al Jazeera, sparking “the African American church to really get involved with this issue”.
About 150 people, mostly black, attended a recent forum at Gaines’ church to discuss gay marriage. Some members of the audience said they were offended that advocates of same-sex marriage were comparing the issue to the African American civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.
Pastor Robert Anderson cited scripture from the Book of Romans to make his point. “If we don’t vote against” gay marriage, thundered Anderson to a nodding crowd, “then we are approving these things that are worthy of death”.
Another panelist, Austin Nimocks, noted that the government has marriage laws on the books because “when you look at married couples and the children that they raise, government spends less taxpayer money on those circumstances. It’s better for society as a whole.”
Accordingly, he asked: “Does it make sense to extend the privileges for married couples to couples that will intentionally deprive children of either a mother or father?”
The conservative case
Married couples “tend to be more productive, they tend to stick with their jobs, they tend to take better care of their health, [and are] more likely to [make] investments in their community as homeowners”.
– Walter Olson
Walter Olson, who runs Maryland for All Families, a group of conservatives and libertarians who support same-sex marriage, would agree with Nimocks that marriage has social benefits.
When people are married, they “tend to be more productive, they tend to stick with their jobs, they tend to take better care of their health, [and are] more likely to [make] investments in their community as homeowners”, he told Al Jazeera.
He believes there are persuasive conservative arguments to be made in favour of gay marriage. For instance, libertarian conservatives believe that government is “there to protect individual rights”, he said, and that people “should be free to do anything” as long as it does not harm others.
And conservatives who fear rapid social change, he argued, could drop their opposition after noticing that gay marriage hasn’t had negative effects in the six states that currently permit it.
Money and marriage
So far, the money in Maryland is on the pro-gay-marriage side. Supporters of the law have raised $3.7m, while opponents have garnered just over $838,000.
Sears, though, thinks these numbers will ramp up in the coming weeks. “I’m not convinced that we’ve seen all the money that’s come into this race,” he said, speculating that more ads opposed to gay marriage will hit the airwaves in the final dash to the election.
In one indication of the extent to which the debate over same-sex marriage has permeated society, it’s even split the Baltimore Ravens, a professional football team. Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who supports gay marriage, and centre Matt Birk, who opposes it, released duelling 30-second spots on the issue.
In 1973, after a spate of incidents in which gay couples attempted to marry, Maryland became the first state in the US to explicitly ban same-sex marriage.
Now, almost 40 years later, Maryland could be the first where voters explicitly endorse it.
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier