Same-sex marriage advocates are reveling in their four victories at the ballot box after 32 straight defeats, calling the results in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington on Tuesday a sea change for the gay rights movement.
"When the history books are written, 2012 will be remembered as the year when LGBT Americans won decisively at the ballot box," said Chad Griffin, head of Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. "The dreams of millions of fair-minded Americans were realized as discrimination crumbled and equality prevailed."
The reelection of President Obama, who said he supported gay marriage in May, and the election of Tammy Baldwin, who will be the first openly gay U.S. senator, further buoyed their hopes that the country is changing.
"It's hard not to say that this was a huge turning point, a tipping point kind of a year," said Matt McTighe, campaign manager of Mainers United for Marriage. Maine's initiative asked voters if the state should be allowed to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; "yes" on Question 1 won 53% to 47%. Maine had voted down gay marriage by the same margin in 2009.
Mainers' United used a unique tactic in winning its initiative: Over three years, it sent staffers and volunteers around the state to knock on doors and change people's minds. Though results are preliminary, McTighe said the campaign did well in the areas where it focused canvassing efforts, which could serve as a lesson to other states planning gay marriage initiatives.
"Maine is a prime example of a kind of state that really can be looked at as a model for future states because we are a state where we lost before," he said. "We proved that just because voters have voted one way, you can change hearts and minds, there is a way to do it. We have the playbook and it's something that can be utilized in any state."
Proponents of traditional marriage say there's no big message to be read in the election results. After all, these were Democratic states and do not represent the rest of the country, said Frank Schubert, the California campaign consultant who ran the traditional marriage campaigns in all four states.
"It was a good night for them, but it doesn't portend any significant change in the country," he said. "It may actually end up helping us long-term."
The votes may energize supporters of traditional marriage, whose financial resources were spread thin this election. Polling shows that if gay marriage had been put to a nationwide vote, it would have been rejected on Tuesday, Schubert said.
"The American people continue to view marriage as a union between one man and one woman," he said. "There's nothing about last night that changes that."
The fact that all four states were outside the Bible Belt did play a role in the victory for gay marriage advocates, said Edward Schiappa, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has followed the marriage battle there. But there were other important factors too. For one thing, some church groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in Minnesota, endorsed gay marriage, allowing religious voters to support initiatives allowing same-sex couples to marry. For another, gay marriage advocates had a better ground game than they did in California in 2008, when they relied too heavily on advertising.
And lastly, he said, conservatives are starting to learn that scaring voters into voting against gay marriage may not work much longer, he said.
"The fear appeals relied upon by opponents of same-sex marriage appear to have run their course," he said, referring to arguments made by opponents that children will be exposed to homosexuality at school, and that religious institutions will be threatened by gay marriage. "This time, these arguments failed to persuade a majority, suggesting a growing number of voters simply found them unpersuasive or implausible."
Religious leaders were a prominent part of the gay rights campaign in Maryland, where voters were asked to vote in favor of or against a law passed by the legislature this year that allowed same-sex couples to marry. Maryland minister Delmon Coates, of the 8,000 member Mt. Ennon Baptist Church, for example, appeared in commercials on behalf of the law.
"The strong religious protections in the bill helped folks see that this is just about civil marriages in the courthouse," said Kevin Nix, a campaign spokesman. "Churches don't have to marry anyone they don't want to."
Supporters of the law, which was signed by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, won by 100,000 votes.
On Jan. 1, Maryland will become the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to allow same-sex marriage, just six months after North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage by a 2-1 margin.
Minnesota voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage, although gay marriage is still against the law in the state. Only 49% of voters supported the law, which had been polling neck and neck in the days before the election. The amendment had been opposed by several prominent Minnesotans, including Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, and General Mills, which said it would hurt the company's efforts to recruit talented young workers in the state. Kluwe posted some thoughts on the victory on Slate, saying, "Enough with the hate. Enough with the bigotry. Enough with the discrimination. We are all Americans, and we are all in this together. Without each other, we have nothing."
Because most of Washington votes by mail-in ballot, final results weren't yet available in the state, which was also voting whether or not to support a pro-gay marriage law passed by the state legislature. But the latest results on Measure 74, which received hefty donations from Bill and Melinda Gates and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, show that supporters of the law were leading 52% to 48%.
Both sides will now look to the Supreme Court to make the next move. It will decide whether to hear cases regarding California's Prop. 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, both of which were struck down by appeals courts. If it does decide to hear those cases, the court will likely rule next year.
Legislatures in Rhode Island, Delaware and Hawaii are likely to tackle same-sex marriage next, with the knowledge that they could pass a bill that may hold up at the ballot box. It's an important distinction, said Jonathan Cowan, the president of the moderate think tank Third Way, in a statement.
"We have crossed a crucial threshold in our country's journey on marriage for gay couples: for the first time in history, the people of a state voted directly to allow committed gay and lesbian couples to marry," he wrote. "That means we've put our past 0 and 32 record behind us and finally refuted marriage opponents' constant refrain: that every time marriage has come up for a ballot initiative vote, it has lost. That record of defeat is now relegated to the history books, and we are beginning a new season when marriage can win."