Those who have fought hardest to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States like to think President Barack Obama’s expression of support was a tipping point for their cause.
They may be right – only time will tell for sure.
In a country that drains vast wells of energy fighting interminable culture wars, however, Mr. Obama’s May 9 move may only have drawn yet another bitter dividing line in American politics. From abortion to school prayer to contraception, Americans never stop debating issues most developed countries settled long ago. Gay marriage may just be the latest addition to this list.
Henceforth, Democratic presidential candidates will favour same-sex marriage and openly champion gay rights – a shift epitomized in the Obama campaign’s Wednesday launch of “Obama Pride” to woo gay voters.
Republicans will continue to fight back with equal force against any recognition of gay marriage. The tug-of-war may endure without resolution for decades to come.
Sort of like abortion.
Almost 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a woman’s right to choose, that issue is far from settled. The anti-abortion lobby and right-wing state politicians find ever more creative ways to make it harder and harder for women to exercise their rights.
The Supreme Court prohibited states from banning abortion outright in 1973. But it has not yet stopped them from making gay marriage illegal and 30 have done so. Gay marriage is legal in only six states and the District of Columbia.
A federal appeals court did invalidate California’s law prohibiting same-sex marriage. But given the current Supreme Court’s conservative bent, it is far from clear it would reach the same conclusion when and if the appeals court ruling does reach the top court.
It is also important to note that Mr. Obama’s declaration of support for gay marriage came the day after 61 per cent of North Carolinians voted to amend the state constitution to ban legal recognition of all same-sex unions, including domestic partnerships. At least four more states will vote on the gay-marriage issue this fall.
“As long as it remains a state-by-state battle, it is something voters are deciding, which is always problematic in the case of civil rights,” noted Amy Stone, a sociology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex., and author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box. “That’s a very long road to travel for the [gay rights]movement.”
Nationally, attitudes are shifting in favour of gay marriage. And Mr. Obama’s change of heart – his opposition melted away over the course of an 18-month “evolution” – could lead more opponents, especially among African-Americans, to reconsider their views.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday put support for gay marriage at 53 per cent, its highest level yet. Opposition fell to a new low of 39 per cent. The increase in support was driven by an 18-per-cent jump (to 59 per cent) among African-Americans, but the small sample size of black voters may have skewed the results.
“There is not a chance in God’s green earth that African-Americans support same-sex marriage,” Frank Schubert of the National Organization for Marriage said in response to the poll. (Blacks have traditionally opposed gay marriage more than whites.)
The Post poll differs somewhat from a New York Times-CBS News survey taken after Mr. Obama’s announcement. It put opposition to gay marriage at 51 per cent and support at 42 per cent, with black and white voters lining up in similar proportions.
Still, the weekend endorsement of gay marriage by the 64-member board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – itself sparked by Mr. Obama’s move – has already changed the conversation in the black community.
But is it a tipping point?
Deep-pocketed and well-organized groups such as NOM and the Catholic Church will continue to pressure state legislatures to ban same-sex marriage or succeed in forcing state referendums on the issue. Their track record shows they usually get their way. After legislatures in Washington State and Maryland voted this year to legalize gay marriage, NOM and its allies succeeded in forcing ballot measures in both states to repeal the laws. Voters will decide in November.
NOM lost its battle in New York State, which legalized gay marriage last year. But it is now working to defeat the four Republican state senators whose support tipped the balance in favour of same-sex marriage. It may lose again in New York, but it has scared plenty of GOP legislators elsewhere who might have been reconsidering their opposition to gay marriage.
Just this month, Virginia’s Republican legislature voted to overturn the judicial nomination of a gay prosecutor and Colorado GOP legislators prevented a bill to allow same-sex civil unions from becoming law.
This week, meanwhile, a North Carolina pastor is in the news for his proposal to imprison all of America’s gays and lesbians behind electric fences until they “die out.”
American culture wars tend to be conflicts without end. Gay marriage may just be the newest among them.