On Tuesday, Maine’s voters opted by a 53 to 47 percent majority to reject a gay marriage law passed by their state legislature and signed by their governor in May. The result has been easily overlooked amidst Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia, and the first Democrat elected to Congress from an upstate New York district in more than a century. It shouldn’t be.
Maine jumped off the New England gay marriage bandwagon driven by its parent state, Massachusetts, and subsequently ridden on by Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Of greater significance, Maine refused to become the first state to give the ballot’s imprimatur to homosexual marriage. From Alaska to Florida, North Dakota to Louisiana, Hawaii to Maine, the states have spoken with a united voice on gay marriage: no.
That’s not the impression one gets from following the issue in the media. The very definition of consensus, traditional marriage is nevertheless couched in the language of controversy by loud voices seeking to undermine it. In the lead up to the referendum on gay marriage, ABC News called Maine’s vote the “latest battle in the divisive fight over gay marriage.” Earlier this week, as Portland, Maine readied to vote on gay marriage, KATU in Portland, Oregon, reported: “One of the most divisive issues in Oregon’s history may be coming back to voters as the state’s largest gay-rights group kicked off their campaign Monday to legalize same-sex marriage in the state.” Even Barack Obama, who struck an ambiguous position on homosexual marriage as a candidate, nevertheless called California’s Proposition 8 “divisive and discriminatory.”
If there is anything approaching a unifying issue in American politics, it is marriage. Specifically, people want to preserve it as an institution involving one man and one woman. Gay marriage has been on the ballot in thirty-one states. Thirty one states have rejected it.
The usual suspects — South Carolina, Mississippi, Utah — have rejected gay marriage through ballot questions. But so, too, have reliably Democratic states, such as Michigan, Hawaii, and California. In Colorado, 56 percent of voters rejected gay marriage; in Ohio, 62 percent; and Missouri, 71 percent. These states are bellwethers, not outliers. As tempting as it is for supporters of homosexual marriage to paint the opposition as extremists, opposition to gay marriage is mainstream. To chalk up the defeats to “hate” is to place that label on most Americans, which is itself a kind of hatred.
A similar disconnect from reality is at work in interpreting a string of defeats worthy of the Washington Generals as proof of the inevitability of gay marriage. Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, told the Boston Globe after Maine’s vote, “We are on the right side of history.” But history is not a prediction of the imagined future. It’s a chronicling of the experienced past. The past has always and everywhere rejected gay marriage when put to a popular vote in America. Just as the pitiful performance of gay marriage at the ballot box has supporters constructing an imaginary history, it has sympathizers eager to proclaim any sign of support for gay marriage in the present as a national reorientation on the issue. “That’s a big cultural change,” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin explained on election night in reaction to early tallies that suggested a victory for homosexual marriage in Maine. “Every time voters have spoken — every time — they have rejected gay marriage. But this shows the country is changing.” To the contrary, the Maine vote demonstrated that unity, rather than division, continues as the status quo.
Certainly voters on both sides of the question are passionate about gay marriage. The intensity in Maine was so great that, despite no candidates for statewide or federal office on the ballot, sixty percent of the state’s registered electorate voted — a higher rate of participation than a dozen states exhibited in last year’s presidential race. And as the passions get stoked, the passionate can get ugly, as post-Proposition 8 events proved in California: an assault on a 69-year-old woman holding a cross, racial taunts issued against African Americans as a result of black opposition to gay marriage, and white powder sent to Mormon churches.
But can a measure that has passed in every state in which it has been put before the voters be called divisive? Not with a straight face. Thirty-one for thirty-one isn’t division. It’s unanimity.