The Tide Isn’t Turning on Marriage: The Real Meaning of Vermont and Iowa

This is a reality check. From a hard, crass, political point of view, our victories in Iowa and Vermont mean very little.

For gay- and lesbian-headed households in Vermont, and for couples like Lee and Tony in outback Iowa, the victories mean almost everything, of course. Starting on April 27 in Iowa and Sept. 1 in Vermont, same-sex couples can marry. They and their children can finally take advantage of the protections their states provide married heterosexuals.

On the positive side of the political ledger, Vermont pioneered a new path. By first passing a marriage bill and then overriding the governor’s veto with a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate, the Vermont legislature proved equality can be won in statehouses as well as courthouses.

This victory undercuts the religious right’s longstanding claim that only latte-drinking, un-American, activist judges will side with same-sex couples. In Vermont, it was the duly elected representatives of the people who declared our families to be equal.

Iowa was momentous because it was the first victory in middle America. Better yet, the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous vote was an emphatic stand against discrimination.

Coming within days of each other and doubling the number of states where same-sex couples can marry, Iowa and Vermont set off a flurry of excitement.

“I think we’re going to look back at this week as a moment when our entire country turned a corner,” Lambda Legal’s Jennifer C. Pizer told The Washington Post.

Something important did happen, but when it comes to marriage, the nation hasn’t turned the corner; the tide hasn’t changed; the momentum hasn’t shifted. Pick whatever metaphor you like, but the politics of the situation remain the same.

Politically speaking, there are two keys to winning this battle: political muscle and the hearts and minds of voters. GLBT political muscle remains flabby in the states and clumsy on the national scene, despite the inauguration of Barack Obama.

The passage of Proposition 8 in California showed us to be a tad out of shape, even in a state known for liberalism. The $45 million that was pumped into the No-On-8 campaign couldn’t even seal a victory.

Among the reasons that campaign stumbled was the lack of grassroots organization (i.e. political muscle). California’s well-funded, long-established GLBT groups fell flat, most likely because these community centers, statehouse lobbyists and non-profit law firms were never intended to be political campaigns.

Block-by-block outreach and get-out-the-vote efforts are the only ways to win at the ballot box. GLBT Americans don’t have that kind of grassroots depth in any state–at least not yet. Given that the opposition comes from socially conservative churches, we also don’t have their advantages. GLBT America doesn’t have tax exempt organizing centers–otherwise known as congregations–in every county of every state. Until we build that kind of localized muscle, we won’t be turning any corners.

Another sign of political weakness is the fact that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is still law. Because of DOMA, gay and lesbian households in Massachusetts, Connecticut and now Iowa and Vermont face legal and financial hardships their heterosexual counterparts never see.

The biggest obstacle we face, though, is the hearts-and-minds factor. Proposition 8 passed because ignorance and prejudice trumped the American inclination toward fairness. Until voters get it in their guts that GLBT people are not the predators portrayed by the religious right, we will not be treated equally.

Winning hearts and minds is hard. It takes appealing ad campaigns, detailed talking points, neighbor-to-neighbor conversations and a mass coming out on a scale that even San Francisco has never seen. We’re making progress. Even though polls continue to show support for marriage equality to be far below 50 percent, they also show that number rising an astounding 10 percentage points in just five years.

In politics, the turning of the tide can be difficult to spot. Soon after the Iowa decision, I thought I saw the signs in the Spencer Daily Reporter, circulation 4,000. The northwest Iowa newspaper wrote about Lee and Tony, who have begun planning a 2010 wedding to celebrate their 15th anniversary.

I was thrilled at the honesty of this middle-aged gay couple, who live in a small town in Dickinson County (county population: 16,500). Then I realized the couple’s last names were never mentioned. Not even their town was revealed.

What happened in Iowa and Vermont will change lives. It is already bringing hope to people in places as unlikely as rural Iowa, The tide will not have truly turned, though, until DOMA is repealed and marriage equality has either arrived or is close to appearing in dozens of states. Most importantly, we will know change has come when people like Lee and Tony no longer fear putting their names in the newspaper.

Diane Silver is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, whose work has appeared in The Progressive,, Ms, and other national publications. She can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected].

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