In stark contrast to the surge of pro-LGBT activism, and legislative and legal progress in recent months, Maine voters overturned equal marriage rights on Election Day by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent.
Voter turnout of nearly 50 percent, local efforts by 8,000 volunteers — many of them straight — and a national blitz of phone banking to try to sway Mainers to uphold equal marriage was not sufficient to retain same-sex marriage in that state. Maine’s Question 1 — similar to California’s Proposition 8 that reversed same-sex marriage rights in that state exactly a year ago — once again placed civil rights on the ballot, this time in an off-year election.
In Washington state, a new law that greatly expands the rights of LGBT couples — though doesn’t grant marriage itself — was approved by voters, but by an unexpectedly narrow margin of 51 percent to 49 percent.
The failure of the same-sex marriage forces in Maine’s No on 1 campaign to retain marriage equality passed earlier this year by the legislature highlights four central problems: 1) Civil rights activists are weakest outside of urban areas where the financial and institutional resources of the right can dominate rural politics; 2) President Obama and the Democrats have failed to deliver on their promise of “fierce advocacy” of LGBT civil rights; 3) LGBT rights must be enacted into law by the federal government; and 4) Civil rights should not be reduced to election fodder to be manipulated by well-financed bigots.
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Nationwide, LGBT activists scrambled in a monumental effort to try to stop right-wingers in Maine from succeeding in what was often termed a “mini-Prop 8” effort that relied on money from the Catholic Church and blitzed the media with lies about how gay marriage would be taught in the schools and imposed on religious institutions.
Local groups will assess the No on 1 organizing efforts in coming weeks, but suffice it to say that despite what appears to have been an energetic and collaborative campaign, equal marriage has lost in every state it has been put to a popular vote — 31 in all. Despite the fact that the No on 1 campaign, Protect Maine Equality, raised $4 million and the anti-same-sex marriage forces raised only $2.5 million, the strategy of statewide ballot initiatives plays to activists’ weaknesses, especially in non-urban areas.
In addition to the purposely confusing language used by the right in these initiatives — voting “yes” denied equality, voting “no” would have retained it — larger population centers create opportunities for activists to reach people in groups, as in Portland, Maine, where the vote was an overwhelming 73 percent against Question 1. At University of Maine’s Orono campus, 81 percent of students voted against taking away equal marriage rights, also showing the generation gap that persists on this question.
Similarly, in Washington state, it was urban King County that voted overwhelmingly for the “everything but marriage” referendum, while the less populated eastern part of the state voted against it.
Just three weeks after the massively successful LGBT National Equality March that drew more than 200,000 people demanding full federal equality now, conservatives are punching back. Right-wing bigots like Pat Robertson have attacked recently enacted federal hate crimes legislation, saying, “The noose has tightened around the necks of Christians to keep them from speaking out on certain moral issues.”
In the face of this hostility and legal challenges, the Democrats have been passive at best and hostile at worst. The White House and Congress have failed to deliver so far on promises to reverse decades of legal discrimination in federal and state laws.
When Attorney General Eric Holder was asked about Maine’s Question 1, he said that he and President Obama “are of the view it is for states to make these decisions.” Holder later said to one blogger, “I don’t really know enough about the referendum over there to comment.” As National Equality March organizer Cleve Jones said on MSNBC of President Obama’s silence on Question 1, “This is a far cry from the fierce advocacy he promised us in his campaign.”
Even more outrageous, not only did the Democratic National Committee (DNC) refuse to help finance the No on 1 campaign, but it expressed crass indifference to LGBT rights when the DNC’s organization “Organizing for America” (formerly known as “Obama for America”) e-mailed Maine voters the day before the election about getting involved . . . in the gubernatorial contest in New Jersey (which lost)!
The failure of the Democrats to hold onto huge gains made in the 2008 election in New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races — and the flaccid response from Obama’s base in this off-year election — reveals that the inability of the Democrats in power to deliver on their promises is alienating progressives.
“President Obama and his team were zero help in this critical battle, and in the last week might actually have hurt us,” said David Mixner, long-time Democratic Party activist and initiator of the call for the National Equality March.
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Maine’s reversal on marriage equality proves once again the bankruptcy of the state-by-state, issue-by-issue strategy upheld by many establishment LGBT forces. This approach concedes that civil rights must remain on the precarious turf of the states, in a country where one Constitution is supposed to guarantee equal protection under the law.
Activists can no longer accept that LGBT civil rights can be attained outside the federal government. Even if Maine voters had rejected Question 1, most marriage rights like Social Security are only gained through the federal government and married LGBT people in Maine, as in the equal marriage states, would have remained second-class citizens under the law.
The right’s strategy of placing LGBT civil rights on state ballots for a vote places the battle for human equality on an unstable and hostile terrain. Why should anyone have to battle in each locality for equal treatment in a country where the Fourteenth Amendment — passed after the Civil War! — guarantees equal protection to all U.S. citizens? Why should LGBT people have to repeatedly reassert that we are equal human beings in every state and municipality 45 years after the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination?
Civil rights cannot wait for the approval of reactionaries. According to that logic, Blacks, too, should have waited for public opinion to catch up with their demands. But in 1968, one year after the Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage as unconstitutional, Gallup polls showed that only 20 percent of Americans approved of marriages between Blacks and whites.
The failure of Maine’s No on 1 campaign highlights why the National Equality March demand for full equality in all matters of civil law in all 50 states must continue to be the rallying cry of grassroots activists across the country.
This is the Week of Initiative called by Equality Across America, the national network attempting to gather these groupings to map out a national strategy to continue this fight. In cities and towns across the country this week, activists will be marching and protesting this defeat in Maine — and celebrating victories in Washington state and Kalamazoo, Mich., where pro-LGBT referenda passed.
Remember Maine. Get out and organize for full federal equality now!
Sherry Wolf is the author of Sexuality and Socialism and a leading organizer of the National Equality March last weekend. This article first appeared in SocialistWorker.org on 5 November 2009; it is reproduced here with the author’s permission.