A “Gay” Spring

First published at 365gay.com on April 10, 2009

Spring arrived for gays this year, not with daffodils and cherry blossoms, but with Iowa and Vermont.

First Iowa, where the state Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. (Don’t adjust your screen. The words “Iowa” and “unanimously” are really in that sentence.) Iowa will begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples by the end of the month.

Then Vermont, where the state legislature passed a marriage bill and then mustered additional votes to override the governor’s veto. Beginning September 1, civil unions in Vermont will be replaced with marriage equality.

Makes you want to go out and buy some maple syrup, doesn’t it?

And returning to cherry blossoms, let’s not forget Washington, D.C., where the City Council unanimously passed a bill recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. (The bill needs to pass a second time and then be reviewed by Congress, like all D.C. laws.)

When our opponents pumped millions of dollars into overturning same-sex marriage in California, they claimed that they were worried about it spreading to other states. But their temporary victory in California obviously couldn’t contain the spread. Marriage equality is spreading like wildfire—or to continue the springtime metaphor, wildflowers—and more states will follow soon.

What’s even better is that, unlike California, Vermont and Iowa seem unlikely to snatch away marriage equality. The Vermont victory happened legislatively—by the people’s representatives—in a state that has had nine years’ experience with robust civil unions.

The Iowa victory involved a unanimous and tightly argued equal-protection decision, and amending the constitution there is far more difficult than in California. It requires votes in two consecutive legislative sessions, then adoption by voters. The earliest that could happen is 2012.

Moreover, the Iowa legislature seems little interested in challenging the decision. On the contrary, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and House Speaker Pat Murphy issued a strong statement supporting it. They included the following:

“When all is said and done, we believe the only lasting question about today’s events will be why it took us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency.”

Of course, we shouldn’t expect our opponents to roll over easily. A strong chorus is rising to attack the “unelected judges” who allegedly imposed their will on the people. As Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) put it, “Once again, the most undemocratic branch of government is being used to advance an agenda the majority of Americans reject.”

The problem for Gallagher and her ilk is threefold. First, Americans are increasingly coming around on the issue of marriage equality, as poll after poll demonstrates. As people get to know us, our lives and our relationships, they realize that we pose them no threat. It thus becomes harder and harder for our opponents to make their case.

Second, this “undemocratic branch of government” did precisely the job that branch is supposed to do—ensure that fundamental constitutional rights don’t get trampled by majority bias.

Third, with Vermont in the mix, it’s not just the courts: it’s elected representatives, too. The multi-prong strategy works. And as Vermont shows, incrementalism—civil unions, then marriage—can be an effective tactic for some states. I doubt Vermont would have marriage equality today were it not for the civil union compromise in 2000.

So celebrate these victories. We’ve earned them, and I dare say we need them.

But we also need to brace ourselves for an ugly backlash, as our opponents become increasingly desperate.

Indeed, the NOM has already released a “Gathering Storm” ad spreading the myth that marriage equality undermines personal freedom. (Bravo to Good As You, and others, who have quickly responded with counter-ads and parodies correcting NOM’s false claims—you can find them on YouTube.)

But there’s even more good news. Unlike California, where marriage-equality advocates had mere months to rebut opponents’ falsehoods before the amendment vote, these new developments allow us time to mount a more thoughtful response.

We need to tell our stories. We need to demonstrate why marriage equality is a basic matter of fairness. We need to listen to our opponents’ concerns and then respond sensitively yet firmly.

There are those who will frantically work to blunt these victories. They may win a few minor battles. But wildflowers are resilient—and unstoppable once they take root. Happy spring.