There have been plenty of defeats on the yellow brick road of progress for marriage equality, and especially on the larger issue of equal rights overall. For instance, Prop 8, and Question 1 in Maine, and the fact that ENDA still can't pass Congress with trans-inclusive language. Often when we lose these battles, we engage in some processing to figure out 'what went wrong' -- other than the pervasive homophobia in both our communities and our legislative bodies, that is. Was it that the mainstream movement didn't reach out to people of color? Was it that big, unwieldy organizations didn't take into account the needs of the community? Maybe it's naive, but we can at least be hopeful that we learn something from each setback, and make our next effort at achieving the same rights as Adam and Betty next door even better.
There are a lot of campaigns for marriage equality going on right now, at varying stages of completion -- Maine, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Washington state are all working on achieving marriage equality or not having it repealed. Maine, in particular, has already lost this fight once, and the pressure is on for activists there to learn from their mistakes. Washington's, however, is coming up very very soon -- hearings are happening today, in fact. Legislators in Olympia will hear argumentson two essentially identical bills, HB 2516 and SB 6239, which will determine whether marriage equality becomes a reality in Washington State or not. And while we won't know the outcome of the issue until next month, there are already indications that activists in Washington are doing some important things right to bring equality to their home state.
First of all, the issue seems to have been pushed to center stage, for both supporters and opponents of gay marriage -- the senators who haven't yet announced which way they'll vote are being "inundated with calls, emails and lobbyist visits" to try to sway them. The hearings today are expected to be "packed," -- as many as 10,000 people have been predicted to flood the area as a response to the hearings, and it would appear that town hall meetings up until this point have been well attended and the support for marriage equality has been vocal. The movement for equality in Washington is well funded, which is a rarity when it comes to activism for marginalized groups, and even has teh support of major corporations, like Microsoft. Furthermore, gay marriage supporters are attempting to make it clear to legislators that this is an issue of equal rights, and not appropriate for a voter referendum (like Prop 8 or Question 1, or Referendum 71 which failed in Washington in 2009). When Senator Mary Margaret Haugen mentioned a referendum in a town hall meeting, the response was immediate:
The packed Whidbey Island meeting, caught on videotape and posted on the Internet, shows same-sex-marriage supporters booing and one calling Haugen a "racist" and a "homophobe" when she advocated sending the issue to voters. "What we're asking you to do is vote in favor of civil rights. Not what your district says," one person in the audience told her.
Senator Haugen has now announced that she plans to support the legislation, becoming the last vote necessary for the bill to pass in the Senate.
Washington already has a fairly strong track record in terms of equality; domestic partnership rights there are already strong enough that virtually all of the legal rights of marriage are granted, and when Referendum 71 tried to repeal the full effect of that law, it didn't pass. What's essentially being voted on now is the word "marriage" -- the question is whether that's enough of a sticking point to stall HB 2516 and SB 6239 at the gate.
Because while pro-equality activists have been working hard on this issue, there's also strong opposition. NOM has promised to spend $250,000 in the state of Washington to try to defeat any Republican who supports the bill in the next election, and the Washington Family Policy Institute was ominously quoted as saying "We have to create among these legislators a belief that they will lose their jobs if they vote to redefine this law." Perhaps worst of all, even though there are enough votes for the bill to pass in the Senate and House and the governor supports it, it's still possible for a clause to be added at some point in the evolution of this bill that will allow for a voter referendum -- while the discriminatory Referendum 71 did fail in Washington, it's also true that no state has won a marriage equality vote when the decision was up to voters.
There's no guarantee that Washington will see victory for marriage equality over the next few months; while their movement has a great deal going for it, there's always a powerful and rich group of people waiting in the wings to make sure we don't have the rights we deserve. But win or lose in Washington, we'll have one more set of examples about what works and what doesn't -- and next time, in Washington or in another state, we will be able to take what we've learned and provide at least this modicum of security and stability to queer families who need it.