From the ballot initiatives to Tammy Baldwin’s Senate win, this was a historic election for gay rights. With barely a ripple
It was not so long ago – 2010, to be exact – that the best gay rights proponents could hope for on election day was for civil rights not to be pruned back further. In 2004, 11 states voted to define marriage as “between a man and a woman”. In 2006, seven states took the same step. In 2008, three. 2010 was a banner year: gay marriage bans weren’t on the ballot anywhere. Invisibility has often been the only option for those seeking some form of equality, but it’s not a sustainable way of being.
Tuesday night saw the largest expansion of gay rights in American electoral history, as Maine, Maryland and Washington became the first states to approve of marriage equality by popular vote and Wisconsin elected Representative Tammy Baldwin as the nation’s first openly gay senator. My adopted home state of Minnesota became the second state to reject a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages – amendments that have passed in 30 other states since 1998, including in the first state to reject one, Arizona.
Marriage equality has moved forward mostly through the courts, gaining legal status inch by inch, even as popular culture sailed blithely ahead. There has probably been no cause in American history in which our national imagination about progress and the lived reality of those who want it have been so far apart.
While the civil rights struggle as it pertains to race is still hardly over, the problem facing non-whites is their lack of representation in popular culture more than it is a too-rosy portrayal. To judge by the Bravo network, you’d think that gay marriage was not just legal, but mandatory – and that, of course, may have been part of the problem. Americans remained squeamish about gay rights because so many saw the movement proceeding without a sense of their having said that was OK with them.
So what has changed? A 2010 New York University study found that voters decided against gay marriage ballot initiatives for the reasons they decide against most things: campaigns don’t change people’s minds.
“Neither advocates nor opponents tended to gain support in any consistent fashion in these campaigns, despite the millions of dollars spent by both sides over the past decade.”
If that study’s findings can be applied to Tuesday night’s results, there is good news and bad news for backers of marriage equality: the good news is that you’ve won the argument; the bad news is that you might not have needed to spend quite as much money as you did. Gay rights have inertia, not momentum, on their side: the effort it takes to convince someone to oppress someone else has become greater than the status quo. This is civil rights not as the unstoppable force, but the immovable object.