In June the New York State Assembly approved same-sex marriage, 33 votes to 29, making New York the sixth state out of fifty to issue marriage licences to gay couples. The press of the entire world conveyed the impression that gay marriage has become mainstream in American culture and therefore it is only a matter of time before it is recognized in the whole country.
The truth, for the time being at least, is the exact opposite. Every time the issue has been put to the people in a referendum, the outcome has been a round “NO”. This has been the case everywhere, even in states that are in the vanguard of modernity and permissiveness, like California. Thirty-one states out of fifty have held referendums and in every case the majority of ordinary people voted against same-sex marriage.
If this is the case, then why did it pass in those six states? Thanks solely to either courts of law or to politics pressured by intense campaigns, capable of mustering huge amounts of capital.
The current federal law was signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton and is known as DOMA, an acronym for Defence of Marriage Act.
DOMA defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman and also asserts the constitutional right of each state to deny recognition to same-sex marriages celebrated in another state. Following the passage of DOMA, a majority of the fifty states (37 out of 50 and counting) have defined marriage in their own constitutions as a union between one man and one woman.
It was only in 2003 that gay marriage was first recognized. The breakthrough came in ultra-liberal Massachusetts, which set an example for other liberal North Eastern states: Connecticut (2008), Vermont (2009) and New Hampshire (2010). In 2009 it was approved in the Midwestern state of Iowa, followed now by New York (2011). Add to these the District of Columbia (the area surrounding Washington that does not belong to any state) and the decision by Maryland in 2010 to automatically recognize same-sex marriages celebrated in other states, and you have the sum total of US jurisdictions that recognize same-sex marriage.
But none of these decisions have ever come from the people.
In the 31 states where the people were consulted, what prevailed was always the will to defend marriage between man and woman, even when this opposed verdicts or laws that had already been passed.
In three cases, Hawaii (1998), Alaska (1998) and California (2008), voters actually annulled court verdicts. In Maine (2009) the citizens abrogated a law that had been approved by their State Assembly.
In other words, so far, advocacy for homosexual marriage has succeeded only when the matter was in the hands of a judge or a group of politicians whom the LGBT lobbies managed to win over. But this very significant fact has been drowned out by the fanfare surrounding the news of the recognition granted in the state of New York alone.
The clamour surrounding that piece of news was so great that it drowned out all other news, such as the fact that the same approval had just been denied in Maryland and in Rhode Island, as well as the recent approval of two constitutional amendments to state constitutions — in Indiana and in Minnesota – to follow DOMA by defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Similar amendments are currently being examined in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
To achieve the approval of same-sex marriage in New York the gay community lobbied Albany long and hard. Five pro-gay marriage groups merged into one and hired a consultant to help them set up an effective lobbying campaign, with phone calls and post cards to politicians, a television blitz costing US$3 million, donations by wealthy benefactors with gay relatives and one-to-one lobbying of politicians.
Effort-wise, gay activists outdid the supporters of traditional marriage, who were financially and numerically incapable of organizing politically to succeed in opposing the New York law. However, to get an idea of how high feelings run on the issue and how attentive to it the public is, suffice it to say that in New York itself, less than two years ago (December 2009), gay marriage had already been put to a vote and lost 38-24. Yet in that case as in others, the governor, who at the time was David A. Paterson, had come out in favour of gay marriage, and the gay rights organizations had steered almost $1 million to election campaigns to support the law.
But California is the case that has seen the most action, involving courts, legislators and referendums. In November 2008, six months after a verdict of the California Supreme Court had recognized the legal quality of same-sex marriages, voters voiced their opinion in a referendum known as “Proposition 8”, whose outcome stipulated that marriage be defined as a union between one man and one woman.
Yet the tables turned once again in August last year when the Ninth District Court in California called this referendum unconstitutional. This decision is currently being appealed and the hearing is scheduled for December. But whatever the outcome, it is probable that this verdict will be sent to the US Supreme Court, which might then validate gay marriage and thereby annul the laws extant in most of the states: an outcome reminiscent of the way abortion came to be legalized in the US almost 40 years ago.
Meanwhile, by the way, it has become known that the judge of the Ninth Circuit who decreed the unconstitutional nature of the referendum was in a situation which could be deemed of conflict of interest, since, as he has freely admitted, he has himself been in a stable homosexual relationship for ten years.
Currently four cases are being tried in as many States, asking that DOMA be declared unconstitutional.
In the White House President Obama has been working on the issue as well. In February his administration made an unprecedented move by officially announcing that it would not defend the constitutionality of DOMA, a federal law. And on July 19 Obama went further, by announcing his support for a bill of law that would abrogate DOMA. Meanwhile the Senate is also preparing to vote on the abrogation of DOMA.
In conclusion, even though over the last eight years same-sex marriage has won the support of judges, politicians, and the media, it remains a controversial subject in the eyes of voters, and has a long way to go before it belongs to the cultural mainstream.
Alessandra Nucci is an Italian writer and freelance journalist. In 2007 she won the Golden Florin in the essay sector of the Premio Firenze [Florence Award] for her book on gender feminism as an instrument of class warfare, La donna a una dimensione [One-Dimensional Woman], published by Marietti 1820.