For those involved in state-level battles for gay rights, timelines are getting shorter. Take Delaware: The state's first bill that would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation was introduced back in 1998. The state’s gay-rights community had to fight for 11 years to finally see it pass in 2009. Just two years later, however, the legislature passed a civil-unions law by a relatively large margin less than two months after it was introduced.
Now, as activists turn their attention to marriage, they’re hoping lawmakers will continue to step up the pace and pass a bill this session. “We are confident that we will have the votes in both houses to pass marriage,” says Lisa Goodman, president of the state’s leading advocacy group, Equality Delaware.
Across the country, marriage-equality advocates are getting their first taste of something sweet—momentum. A majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage and the number continues to rise as younger folks enter the electorate. The number of states legalizing same-sex marriage has gone from a slow trickle to what looks like an increasingly steady stream. In November, voters in three states—Washington, Maryland, and Maine—approved same-sex marriage, while in Minnesota, voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban it. These were the first ballot-box victories for marriage equality. Now gay couples can marry in nine states.
This year, activists are looking to run that number up, waging legislative battles in five key states: Illinois, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Delaware. All have Democratic majorities, supportive governors, and good odds. By the end of the year, gay and lesbian couples may have marriage rights in more than one-quarter of the country.
“We’re getting faster and faster,” says Marc Solomon, the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, which has helped finance and strategize state campaigns. Solomon says the 2012 election—in which new pro-gay-rights lawmakers were elected in some key states—highlighted the movement's increasing political muscle. While not all the numbers are in, Solomon estimates that marriage-equality advocates outspent their opponents by a sizable margin, signaling an increase in fundraising power behind gay-friendly candidates. “This fear some people have that [supporting gay rights] is going to hurt just doesn’t bear truth. It’s been quite the contrary in many races,” he says. “Electoral work gives lawmakers the freedom to vote their conscience or in some cases makes them feel like they really need to vote for the right to marry.”
Topping Freedom to Marry’s priority list is Illinois, where a marriage bill nearly passed during the state legislature’s lame-duck session. Had three senators not been absent—two with family emergencies, one with his daughter’s bat mitzvah—the measure might have passed already. Even so, the close call left many optimistic; the new house and senate have Democratic super-majorities and leaders in both chambers are supporting the legislation.
When advocates sued the state over the discimination in its civil-unions law, they also mounted a publicity campaign. During the filing, Lambda Legal, the national LGBT group that helped bring the suit, also publicized stories of a diverse group of same-sex couples and their families who lacked the protections straight married people have. The group used video testimonials and websites to help the general public get to know some “average” gay families and what their daily lives are like. “Having couples and family members share their stories with their own lawmakers is crucial—crucial—to these campaigns,” Solomon says.
For Camilla Taylor, a Lamba Legal lawyer who served as lead counsel in the Illinois marriage lawsuit and helped to craft and advocate for the marriage bill, the groundwork and shift in national mood have made advocacy different this year. It’s “a new feeling, the feeling that we have majority of popular support behind us,” she says. “We're asking for something that the public wants.”
In Minnesota, things have moved fast as well. Just a few months ago, activists were fighting against a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman exclusively. They won, and this year they’re hoping to legalize same-sex marriage. That would be quite a turnaround. But the anti-marriage ballot measure helped to lay the groundwork for this new push. The state’s lead advocacy group, Minnesotans United for All Families, showed its power when it raised more than $12 million to kill the amendment, far more than the opposition. With the help of that money, the group launched a substantial "conversations campaign,” focused on getting supporters to talk directly to friends and neighbors who opposed the amendment.
Minnesotans United has now turned into a lobbying effort, focused on building legislative support to pass a marriage equality bill this session. Helpfully, this year the state legislature is controlled by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (Minnesota's version of Democrats.) Still, there are some challenges. According to the Pioneer Press, 75 of the state's 87 counties supported the constitutional amendment, and there's still some concern about political ramifications for those representing more rural parts of the state. Lawmakers, including House members who are likely to sponsor the marriage equality bill, have taken pains to say they don't want this issue to be the focus of the session and will begin with an emphasis on the state's budget. Still, most see a huge opportunity for Minnesota to legalize same-sex marriage.
In Rhode Island, the push is coming partly from the legislative leadership. House Speaker Gordon Fox is gay and an advocate for marriage equality, and Governor Lincoln Chafee has long been supportive of same-sex marriage. Fox has promised to help move a measure forward, and the president of the state senate has also promised to allow a committee vote if and when the house sends the bill over. Similarly, ardent support from governors in Delaware and Hawaii has helped to shape the optimism around those states' legislative efforts.
Despite the clear momentum, Solomon cautions that none of the five target states are shoo-ins. “I have yet to see a state where it’s been slam-dunk easy,” he says. But the optimism is certainly growing as advocates see increasing paths to victory—and each win could have broader implications. The Supreme Court will hear same-sex marriage cases in March, considering the constitutionality of both California's ban and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. More victories in the states will help make the argument that the American public is ready for, and wants to see, gay citizens achieve full equality.