January 4, 2010 at 1:51 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Marriage was the story of the year in 2009

Supporters of LGBT rights faced many ups and downs in 2009, but no issue proved as tumultuous or gained as much attention as the ongoing fight over marriage rights.

Alternating between legislative defeats in Maine and New York and victories in four states and Washington, D.C., the issue figured prominently into the national discourse. The momentum behind efforts to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples last year was unprecedented and often gave gay rights activists reason to celebrate.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, called the advancement of same-sex marriage in 2009 a “capstone to a decade of extraordinary progress.”

“At the end of the decade,” he said, “[we have] five states plus the District of Columbia having the freedom to marry, others shimmering within reach and well more than a third of Americans living in a place where same-sex couples have at least some measure of statewide recognition and protection.”

M.V. Lee Badgett, a lesbian economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said the advancement of same-sex marriage is striking particularly in states that already allowed relationship recognition.

“I think the main thing that we learned is that states are ready to legalize same-sex marriage and it happened in several places that have civil unions or domestic partnerships,” she said. “Legislators realized, [at] the request of their constituents, that those statuses were not the same.”

Joining Massachusetts and Connecticut this year in legalizing same-sex marriage were four states — Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire — as well as D.C. The victory in Maine was short-lived, though, as voters there overturned the decision in November through a “people’s veto” at the ballot box.

Social conservatives highlighted the loss of same-sex marriage in Maine — in addition to the failure of the New York State Senate to pass marriage legislation in December — as evidence of resistance to granting marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples throughout the country.

Jenny Tyree, marriage analyst for Focus on the Family Action, said the repeal of the marriage law in Maine “further clarified” that “the majority of Americans support the ‘one-man, one-woman’ definition of marriage.”

“There were judicial and legislative decisions that redefined marriage in a handful of states and in the District,” she said. “That was disheartening, but ultimately, we’re pleased that Maine affirmed the decision of voters in 30 other states who say they did not want marriage to be redefined.”

But Wolfson cautioned against reading too much into Maine voters’ decision to overturn the marriage law, arguing that “we’ve been there before and when we stuck with it, we went on to win.”

“Let’s remember that in 1998, the Maine Legislature passed a non-discrimination law, and that was overturned by the voters, too,” he said. “And then we passed it again in the legislature in 2000, and it was overturned again. And then we passed it a third time in 2005, and only then were we able to sustain it at the ballot.”

Wolfson said continuing the conversations about why marriage rights are important for same-sex couples will protect those rights in the future when they’re challenged.

“Maine also showed that we have to push forward just a notch beyond where we are and bring over another small slice of people who have not yet seen the visibility of gay families,” he said. “If we had had those conversations, and that greater bit of visibility with just 16,000 more people, we would have held the freedom to marry in Maine.”

In addition to the advancement of same-sex marriage rights, 2009 also saw greater support for gay nuptials among the electorate, according to recent polls.

One noteworthy poll from April published by Washington Post-ABC News found, for the first time, a plurality of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage. Among those polled, 49 percent said they favored marriage rights for same-sex couples, while 46 percent said they should be illegal.

Badgett said recent polling shows that while same-sex marriage still doesn’t enjoy support from a majority of Americans, attitudes are changing.

“There’s not yet a majority, but there is increasing support,” she said. “And I think it’s quite possible that people that will change their minds over time.”

But Tyree discounted the recent polling data, and said the numbers don’t reflect what happens when same-sex marriage is brought to the voters in individual states.

“It seems like when they really have a chance to think about it, they decided to continue to define it between one man and one woman,” she said. “Yes, the national polling has some merit, but it doesn’t seem to have been any real predictive factor at the state level.”

Polls also continue to show strong support for same-sex marriage among young people. The Washington Post-ABC News poll, for example, found that among responders under the age of 35, two-thirds supported same-sex marriage.

But despite that level of support, Tyree said the position of young people on same-sex marriage is “really still in play.”

“I think that the jury is still out on what they will decide as they start families and become more aware of what’s at stake with the push for redefining marriage,” she said. “Nothing is inevitable, and I think that that is true of how they currently feel about redefining marriage.”

Wolfson said the support for same-sex marriage among young people shows the battle can be won, but at the same time “doesn’t make the battle self-winning.”

“We have to mobilize those young people; we have to engage them,” he said. “There is no marriage without engagement, and there is no way to secure social justice without doing the work.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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