Marriage Equality, DREAM Movements Win Big at the Ballot Box

Rebecca Burns

Should the rights of marginalized groups be put to a popular vote? Though ballot initiatives and referendums were among the cures to unresponsive government that the Populist Party pushed during the 1890s, these measures have equally often produced regressive results as progressive ones. But last night, savvy campaigning around same-sex marriage and immigration reform secured landmark civil rights victories.

In Maryland, voters passed the Maryland Dream Act, which will grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who have graduated from state high schools and fulfilled other requirements. Maryland joins 13 other states in providing some form of tuition parity to undocumented students, but the first to pass this measure by popular vote. With 96% of precincts reporting this morning, an unofficial tally had 58.3 percent supporting the measure and 41.7 percent opposing.

This means so much to me, my parents and my family — who are the other dreamers,” Nathaly Uribe, a high school senior who arrived from Chile at the age of two told the Baltimore Sun. This will give all of us a chance.”

The ACLU praised the outcome, saying it would bolster the push for the DREAM Act at the federal level.

The passage of the DREAM Act is a remarkable victory for Maryland and its immigrant community, especially aspiring citizens,” said Sirine Shebaya, Liman Fellow at the ACLU of Maryland in a statement. By approving Question 4 by a wide margin, Marylanders have shown that they stand for fundamental fairness and equality for all of Maryland’s students. This achievement places Maryland at the forefront of efforts to secure rights for immigrants who are an integral part of communities throughout Maryland.”

Montanans, however, voted overwhelmingly to deny government services to undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, in another first-of-its-kind victory, voters in three states — Maine, Maryland and Washington—voted to legalize same-sex marriage by wide margins. In Minnesota, an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage was defeated.

Marriage equality’s long losing streak at the polls has led many LGBT organizers to question whether the movement shouldn’t pack up and take the fight elsewhere. Of thirty-eight anti-gay marriage referendums and initiatives on state ballots between 2004 and 2009, the LGBT movement was able to turn back only eight, resulting in widespread elimination of a right that didn’t yet exist. And until now, gay marriage has been defeated in each of the 32 states where it’s been placed on the ballot. Following this string of electoral defeats, historian and queer theorist John D’Emilio wrote:

Please, can we speak the truth? The campaign for same-sex marriage has been an unmitigated disaster. Never in the history of organized queerdom have we seen defeats of this magnitude. The battle to win marriage equality through the courts has done something that no other campaign or issue in our movement has done: it has created a vast body of new antigay law.

The victories this year mean that state electorates have finally caught up with nationwide polls suggesting that support for gay marriage is now a mainstream view. They also reflect, as Nathaniel Frank notes at Slate today, a successful shift towards less confrontational campaign rhetoric in favor of a warmer, fuzzier appeal to the values that straight couples share with gay couples. 

This strategy of un-queering the queer movement remains controversial (see our debate on gay marriage between Josh Freides, an organizer with Equal Rights Washington, and queer activists Yasmin Nair and Kenyon Farrow). But it may also mean that – try as the National Organization for Marriage might today to deny it–we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the anti-gay marriage backlash.

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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