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After New York, will marriage equality have to wait?

December 2, 2009 |  4:31 pm
The rap on California elections, especially when it comes to same-sex marriage, is that the state's ballot initiative process too ably empowers voters to overturn carefully deliberated decisions made by legislators and judges. New York voters, by contrast, will not get the chance to do so after their state Senate's rejection today of same-sex marriage:

ALBANY -- The State Senate defeated a bill on Wednesday that would legalize same-sex marriage, after an emotional debate that touched on civil rights, family and history. The vote means that the bill, pushed by Gov. David A. Paterson, is effectively dead for the year and dashes the optimism of gay rights advocates, who have had setbacks recently in several key states.

The bill was defeated by a decisive margin of 38 to 24. The Democrats, who have a bare, one-seat majority, did not have enough votes to pass the bill without some Republican support, but not a single Republican senator voted for the measure. Still, several key Democrats who were considered swing votes also opposed the bill. ...

Had the legislation passed, New York would have become the sixth state where marriage between same-sex couples is legal or will soon be permitted. But now that it has failed, New York becomes the latest state where gay rights advocates have made considerable progress only to see their hopes dashed.

Last month Maine became the 31st state to block same-sex marriage through a referendum. The Maine State Legislature had voted to legalize same-sex unions earlier this year, but opponents of gay rights gathered enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

Last year, California voters repealed same-sex marriage after the State Supreme Court said that gay couples had the right to marry.

Unlike in Maine, however, New York does not have a referendum process that allows voters to overturn an act of the Legislature.

Read the whole story from the New York Times here.

I still believe the marriage question is one of inevitability (or, to use a cliche, when, not if), and the sense that history is on their side gives same-sex marriage proponents a tremendous psychological advantage. Still, even the most optimistic equality advocates must acknowledge that progress on this issue seems to have hit a wall over the last few years. The pain is particularly acute here in California, where the narrow passage of Proposition 8 dashed (temporarily) the hopes of same-sex couples, who had seen their domestic partnership rights steadily expanded by Sacramento over the previous several years. Several groups are gathering signatures to put on the 2010 state ballot an initiative overturning Proposition 8.

But is 2010 too soon? Should same-sex couples wait longer than they expected for marriage quality? It's a sordid thing for a straight man like myself who cares deeply about this issue to say to gay men and women. Their quality of life is at stake, not mine, and it's completely unfair for them to have to spend any more of their remaining lives as second-class citizens. But when the focus shifted from domestic partnerships to the M-word, conservative activists (and yes, I'm lumping in those of you who say you tilt left but oppose equality) dug in and fought hard -- and, I would say, unfairly.

The question doesn't have an easy answer. As The Times wrote in its Nov. 5 editorial on Maine voters' rejection of same-sex marriage:

Still, we now know that it will take more than well-prepared arguments and savvily run campaigns to bring about wider victory for same-sex marriage. Lifelong marriage traditions and deeply held religious beliefs have a strong grip on many voters. Younger people, who have grown up in a world of greater societal tolerance of different sexual orientations, are far more likely to vote for gay marriage. But even that greater acceptance came about only through years of gay-rights struggle -- legal, legislative and cultural.

The Maine experience indicates that this struggle continues uphill -- and it can't afford to pause now. Gays and lesbians shouldn't have to wait for an entire generation to reach voting age in order to receive equal rights.

-- Paul Thornton

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