When We Went Gay

GAY MARRIAGE GOT MORE ATTENTION THAN ANY OTHER issue, partly because it inspired the most vehement opposition. Some gay activists would have preferred to move more slowly on this hot-button subject, but two state courts bumped it to the front of the national agenda. In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples. Four months later, Governor Howard Dean signed a civil-union bill which made Vermont the first state in the union to give same-sex couples the same rights as married men and women—without calling it marriage.

In the spring of 2001, seven gay couples who had been denied marriage licenses in Massachusetts filed a lawsuit demanding the right to marry. Two and a half years later the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared that the state constitution required marriage equality for same-sex couples. When the same court bolstered that ruling with another one early in 2004 that required the state legislature to enact full marriage rights for same-sex couples, it sparked a series of events that kept the issue at the top of the national agenda for the rest of the year.

Eight days after the second court decision in Massachusetts, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom decided that California’s constitution authorized him to immediately start marrying same-sex couples. Within days, more than 2,000 couples were issued marriage licenses, and newscasts all across the country were flooded with images of happy couples lined up on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall to formalize their relationships.

The California Supreme Court eventually invalidated all of those marriages, but the combination of the mayor’s edict and the Massachusetts decision triggered a firestorm of opposition from the religious right.

George Bush catered to his evangelical base by endorsing a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, 12 days after the marriages in San Francisco began.

In March, the House and Senate both held hearings on the proposed amendment, but it was defeated in the Senate by vote of 49 to 48. In May, 600 same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses the first day they were available in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, allies of the President petitioned to get state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on the ballot in 11 states: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah.

Conservatives argued that gay marriage threatened heterosexual unions, but no one ever offered a credible explanation of why that might be so. As gay Congressman Barney Frank asked when the debate first began to catch fire, if gay marriage were legalized, were married men across America “really going to smack themselves on the head, and say, ‘Wow! I could I have married a man!’”

Nevertheless, every one of those anti-gay-marriage amendments passed easily that November. And when voters were asked in a national exit poll which issue mattered most in deciding their vote for President, 22 percent chose “moral values” as their first choice. Those facts produced an instant consensus: Opposition to gay marriage had played a decisive role in George Bush’s re-election. But a closer examination of the election’s results revealed there was no hard evidence to support that notion.

Ethan Geto, the New York politico who began the fight for gay rights way back in 1970 in the Bronx, sat down in 2005 to examine what had really happened the previous November. He discovered that voters who cited “moral values” as their primary concern—who were then asked follow-up questions—cited everything from Janet Jackson’s breast-baring at the Super Bowl to “commercials selling products you don’t want your children to see” as the moral values they were talking about. For many evangelical Christians—the most reliable opponents of gay marriage—the main component of moral values was their antipathy to abortion.

Humphrey Taylor, the chairman of the Harris Interactive Poll, noted that when people were asked to say what they thought were the most important issues without prompting and without being shown a list, “the overwhelming majority of people mentioned the war on terror, Iraq, the economy, jobs, health care and education. Many people chose moral values [from a list] because it is the right thing to say.” And when a post-election poll by Zogby International asked “Which moral issue most influenced your vote?”, gay marriage came in last, at 9 percent, far behind the war in Iraq, at 42 percent.

On the question of whether the gay initiatives had helped to re-elect President Bush, Mr. Geto’s analysis was even more convincing. Only New Mexico and Iowa switched to Bush in 2004, and neither of them had anti-marriage proposals on the ballot. On the other hand, in three key swing states that did have gay-marriage initiatives—Michigan, Ohio and Oregon–Senator John Kerry (in 2004) outperformed Vice President Al Gore (in 2000) in all three. Although neither Mr. Gore nor Mr. Kerry carried the key state of Ohio, Mr. Kerry came two points closer to a win than Mr. Gore.

And according to Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, Mr. Bush’s share of the vote in states without the initiatives increased by 2.9 percent between 2000 and 2004, but only by 2.6 percent in the states that did have them.

When We Went Gay