The unsung comeback of the past year belongs to the resilient gay-rights movement. Moxie and recommitment to state-based organizing have marked local and national leaders’ rebound from the demoralizing gut-punch of 2004, when 13 states banned same-sex marriage through referenda. But this fall, a landmark win in Maine spoke volumes about regained momentum and refined strategy in 2006.
The Nov. 8 ballot measure in Maine sought to kill a nondiscrimination law approved in the spring by the state legislature. It was the fourth time such a bill – protecting gay people from bias in jobs, housing, credit, and public accommodations – made it through both chambers in Augusta. It was also the third time the state’s executive signed it. Current Democratic Governor John Baldacci, after inking the act, said he hoped “this time was the charm,” and vowed to help it stay in place.
Neither he nor a savvy band of activists could breathe easily, because Maine allows for nullification of newly passed laws by “citizen’s veto,” an up-or-down ballot question triggered if foes gather 50,000 petition signatures within 90 days. Using these provisions, the right wing pounced. Their best leverage was a big list of supporters from two prior repeal battles, ultimately won by anti-gay forces at the ballot box in 1998 and 2000.
For gays and allies, both losses stung. They left Maine alone among New England states without an anti-bias shield for gays and lent credence to the crackpot antics of the Christian Civic League’s director, Michael Heath. After the 1998 fight, Heath faced accusations of underhanded accounting from his own followers. In 2005, his exploits included soliciting “rumors” and “speculation” on the sexual orientation of Maine officials to post on the Internet.
Some heterosexual lawmakers mocked the stunt by outing themselves in solidarity with gay colleagues and constituents. So Heath compounded deceit with arrogance, peddling the falsehood that the law permitted same-sex marriage. He then hoped to parlay that lie to repeal the modest anti-bias proposal, which had GOP co-sponsors in the legislature. Heath’s duplicitous behavior only deepened the zeal of Christian groups to join the crusade from out of state. Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based group led by James Dobson, trotted out an ex-homosexual to sell its gays-can-change snakeoil.
But in the end, more than 44 percent of Maine voters turned out for the off-year election. And more than 55 percent voted to keep the law. Their verdict breathed life into activists, allies and movement leaders inside and outside the state. The campaign and the result stand out for a series of breakthroughs:
- It was the first statewide win for a progressive coalition on a gay-rights issue since the coast-to-coast juggernaut of state referenda to bar same-sex marriage in the 2004 elections.
- It was the first time activists in any state preserved a proactive policy explicitly safeguarding equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in a statewide vote.
- And it was the first time in a recent statewide ballot measure on gay rights that outlying precincts in non-college towns registered close to 50 percent support for the progressive side. Ministers, churchgoers, Republicans and union members played key parts in the campaign, and the grassroots reach of community groups with door-to-door canvass operations like the Maine People’s Alliance proved indispensable. First-person testimonials from people who suffered lost jobs, promotions or leases due to sexual orientation bias also proved potent.
The turnaround from earlier urban-rural splits in the voting patterns was particularly striking and meaningful. In 1998 and 2000, northern Aroostook County (home to Republican Senator Susan Collins) sealed the fate of the two earlier gay-rights laws by voting two to one for repeal. In 2005, direct contact by coalition leaders with local voters helped cut that margin in half.
Seven years earlier, in a bold protest against the first repeal bid, Maine resident Paul Fuller walked across the state – end to frigid end – just prior to the mid-winter election in a painstaking plea for respect. His hometown, Waldoboro, rewarded his courage by voting to strip a portion of his human rights by a margin of four to three. This time, voters in Lincoln County, where Waldoboro lies, completed a particularly poignant about-face by equaling the state margin of support for the law, 55 percent.
The Maine win rebuffed right-wing efforts to tar anti-bias statutes with the marriage brush. In a twist, the wedding-banners’ blitz has actually raised awareness among Americans that no federal law yet exists to protect gay people from job discrimination in the private sector, where 80 percent of Americans work. In the continuing drive to fill this void at the state level, Illinois joined Maine in adopting anti-bias language in 2005. Washington state and Oregon came exceedingly close, with renewed pushes promised. Victories there would bring the list of states covered by such statutes to 18.
Signs of progress appeared even on the marriage front. Last May, Nebraska federal district judge Joseph Bataillon issued a stinging setback to foes of equality, striking down on constitutional grounds a state amendment passed by voters five years earlier that was so sweeping as to bar both marriage and domestic-partner benefits. In December, reporters from papers around the country checked in on California right-wing groups, and found them floundering in their drive to place a referendum before state voters in 2006 to strip away partner rights and bar equal access to civil marriage for same-sex couples. This came as Equality California and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, among others, smartly circled wagons and courted allies, such as the state NAACP and the United Farm Workers, should a ballot fight go forward.
Resurgence of a strong, state-based movement could not come at a better time. In 1998, philosopher Richard Rorty celebrated the gay-rights struggle for its earth-shattering premise that a pervasive, everyday form of sadism is wrong and might one day be stopped. Indeed, the past year of revived grassroots success came just as the Bush administration invited Americans to be desensitized to cruelty – whether against torture victims in far-off jails or domestic survivors of a deadly storm left to drown in its riptide.
In Maine, like other corners of the country, using the law to curb intolerance has proved a drawn-out fight, full of reversals, often waged on a shoestring, like Paul Fuller’s pilgrimage. It has required that gay people outmaneuver bullies, build alliances, marshal resources and improvise. A generation ago, the poet Adrienne Rich urged activists to “take what we have to invent what we need.” The resourceful coalition and resounding victory in Maine suggest the gay-rights movement is poised to do exactly that in the year ahead.