LGBT Groups Need to Play Offense

Basic Rights Oregon (BRO)—the leading LGBT advocacy group in the state—faced a difficult decision this past November. In 2004, Oregon voters approved a constitutional measure to ban same-sex marriage. The vote wasn’t even close. The amendment passed by a whopping 57-43 percent margin as part of a larger push by Republicans to incite fervor in their base during George W. Bush's re-election campaign.

Since then, Basic Rights Oregon had been eying the 2004 amendment for possible repeal. Should the organization hit the go button to bring the issue to the voters again in 2012?

For now, that looks like a risky move—BRO’s internal poll numbers predict a evenly split electorate. The organization didn't want to risk putting the amendment up only to see if fail, and they just weren't quite confident enough that the state had shifted enough since 2004. “Who would ever choose to go into a ballot measure at 50-50?” says Jeana Frazzini, the group's executive director. “We need a solid cushion of support to ensure that you can get your voters to the polls and see an outcome that is in line with public opinion.”

Voters in Maine—where voters rolled back a same-sex marriage bill passed by the legislature—are confident they’re already there. In Minnesota, Maryland, and Washington state, conservative groups are also pushing same-sex marriage bans onto the ballot. While all attention has turned to president Obama’s completed evolution on same-sex marriage, the fight for marriage equality is still primarily conducted on a state-by-state basis—for proof, one need look no further than North Carolina, where a gay-marriage ban passed with overwhelming support on Tuesday. But come November, there’s reason to hope that 2012 might finally be the year when a state institutes same-sex marriage through a popular vote rather than through judicial or legislative processes.

Republicans took control of the Minnesota House and Senate in the 2010 and passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage even though, as in North Carolina, the state already forbade same-sex marriage. Pro-LGBT groups would have rather not have the measure on the ballot again this fall, but Kate Brickman, press secretary for Minnesotans United for All Families, believes their campaign will produce a different result when Minnesotans vote in November. “I think it’s very different from state to state,” she says, noting that her group has had more time to prepare for the election than her counterparts in North Carolina.

In addition, it appears likely that residents of Washington state and Maryland will have the option to overrule their legislators through referendum this November. Both states passed marriage laws earlier this year that are currently on hold while conservatives see if they can gain enough votes to put a referendum on the ballot in November. Early polls from both states give a slight advantage to proponents of same-sex marriage.

Maine stands alone as the sole state in 2012 where the election is being conducting on the terms of LGBT-rights advocates. Maine's legislature and governor legalized same-sex marriage three years ago, but it was overturned by a referendum vote, losing by a 53-47 percent margin. David Farmer, director of communications at Mainers United For Marriage, says polls indicate proponents of marriage equality have changed enough minds over the intervening years to have a real shot at reinstating marriage equality at the ballot box.

Conservatives have initiated almost every vote on same-sex marriage, forcing progressives to play on a field defined by their opposition. Maine will be a test case for what will become more common over the coming years: a proactive campaign in favor of marriage at the timing of LGBT organization’s choosing. “We know that our chances of success are greater the more people have had to think and talk it through and are not being stampeded into voting their fears rather than voting for families,” says Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry. “The more time and the more personal conversations we have the closer and closer we come to the day when we will be able to win an up-or-down vote on the ballot, the hardest thing for any minority to do.”

Conservatives recognize that, given quickly changing attitudes about gay rights, it’s a race against time. “Part of the reason the anti-gay forces pushed this amendment now is because they don’t trust where the country and people in North Carolina are headed,” says Wolfson. “They’re trying to cement discrimination in now before people have a chance to really rising to fairness.”

Farmer noted that while North Carolina fell in line with other states in the region when they approved the amendment this week, Maine is out of step by not recognizing same-sex marriages. “We see overwhelming support in New Hampshire for allowing gay and lesbian couples to get married. We see what happened in New York. We have Massachusetts, which is our neighbor,” he says. “The dynamic of the New England region and Maine particularly is a lot different than you see in any other part of the country.”

Even if gay-rights supporters succeed in Maine, the history of LGBT rights is defined by outcomes like North Carolina’s new amendment, battles where conservatives have dictated the terms and backed marriage equality proponents into elections they would rather avoid. That’s why BRO decide to bide its time before bringing a measure before Oregonians. The polls might not be there quite yet, but as acceptance continues to grow at a fast clip, it is only a matter of time before the scales tip in their favor. “As far as we had come—our education campaign had in the course of not quite two years increased support for the freedom to marry in Oregon by ten points, and yet we were still in a dead heat for amending the constitution,” Frazzini says. “We’re looking for a much stronger majority before calling the question.” 

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