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1 for 31 no more: Gay rights movement ends dismal record

Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press via AP

Anthony Streiff, left, Alex Sand and Nam Dorjee, all of Minneapolis, burst into tears on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, after hearing that voters had rejected a proposed amendment to Minnesota's Constitution to ban gay marriage. They had gathered at a Minnesotans United for All Families election night event in St. Paul, Minn.

It was among the worst performances in American political history, and yesterday it came to a screeching halt.

Supporters of same-sex marriage had lost 30 statewide votes on the issue (interrupted only by a vote in Arizona that was later reversed in another ballot) before Tuesday’s victories in Minnesota, Maryland and Maine, turning the tide on LGBT rights on what one expert calls a “red letter day.” Pro-gay marriage forces also hold a lead in a Washington state vote, although that one remains too close to call.

“I would expect that when people are writing 50 years from now, when they’re writing high school civics books, that Nov. 6, 2012, will be listed as a red letter day for the gay rights movement,” said Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor and author of “From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage.”

“I think it will be seen as the date that marriage equality turned an important corner,” he added. “It’s been such an important part of the anti (-gay) marriage narrative that the people will never vote for it. And now they didn’t just vote for it once, they voted for it three times … that’s incredible to run the table.”

The big day for gay rights advocates went beyond the four states holding ballot initiatives: In Wisconsin, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, defeated her Republican opponent Tommy Thompson, 51 percent to 46 percent, to become the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. The replacement for her House seat is also gay.

“I think this is a sea-change moment. I think we see the real mainstreaming of gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and so Tammy Baldwin’s election is really pointing to the future,” Bishop Gene Robinson, who was elected as the Episcopal church’s first openly gay bishop in 2003 to head the Diocese of New Hampshire, told msnbc’s Thomas Roberts.  

He also noted that the election results were a sign that slain gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk “was right.”

“He said, you know, ‘When you get to know us you can’t help but love us,’ and as mainstream Americans get to know their gay and lesbian neighbors, it is increasingly the case that they want to see them in all levels of our leadership, and having the first openly gay person in the Senate is a real step forward,” Robinson said.

The National Organization for Marriage, which shepherded the state campaigns opposing same-sex marriage, said its enthusiasm was not tempered by Tuesday's results. Its president, Brian Brown, said they “nearly prevailed in a very difficult environment, significantly outperforming the GOP ticket in every state” and noted they were outspent despite giving $5.5 million to the cause.

“We were fighting the entirety of the political establishment in most of the states, including sitting governors in three of the states who campaigned heavily for gay marriage. Our opponents and some in the media will attempt to portray the election results as a changing point in how Americans view gay marriage, but that is not the case,” Brown said in a statement. “Americans remain strongly in favor of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The election results reflect the political and funding advantages our opponents enjoyed in these very liberal states.”

“Though we are disappointed over these losses, we remain faithful to our mission and committed to the cause of preserving marriage as God designed it,” he added. “Marriage is a true and just cause, and we will never abandon the field of battle just because we experienced a setback. There is much work to do, and we begin that process now.”

Klarman said he expected the votes to energize same-sex marriage supporters to try and repeal existing constitutional amendments or to get legislatures to approve gay marriage. He noted that Wisconsin is a state that was “somewhere in the middle” on gay marriage, though it has a constitutional amendment banning such unions, so electing Baldwin was significant.

“Having an openly gay senator is enormously important; it’s analogous to having the first black president,” he said. “This demonstrates that people are comfortable with sexual orientation on a level that you’ve never seen before and there’s just no evidence that Baldwin lost any votes because of her sexual orientation. … ten years ago, I think that would have been almost inconceivable.”

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