Shifting views on gay marriage

Our view: On legalizing same-sex unions, the grass roots are ahead of the politicians

May 13, 2010

To hear top elected officials talk, you'd think the prospects for legalizing same-sex marriages in Maryland anytime soon were as remote as a return to the moon. But that's not what the state's residents are saying. A new poll by The Washington Post has found that support for gay marriage is growing among registered voters in the state, making the issue one that the General Assembly almost inevitably will have to address during its next four-year term.

The poll, conducted May 3-6, found that registered voters favored legalizing same-sex marriages 48 percent to 43 percent. Moreover, among all state residents opinion on the issue is virtually tied, with 46 percent in favor of legalizing such unions and 44 percent opposed. That's a marked shift from 2007, the last time The Post asked about gay marriage. At that time, only 44 percent of respondents were in favor of legalizing gay unions, with 51 percent opposed.

What accounts for the shift in attitudes? Most likely a number of factors are at work, including demographic shifts in the population and the coming of age of a younger generation of Marylanders who have grown up with the assumption that gays and lesbians are entitled to the same rights as their heterosexual peers.

Del. Emmet Burns, one of the harshest voices of opposition to gay rights in the General Assembly, chalked the change up to the effect of politicians kow-towing to the gay lobby. That makes for great sound bites, but the truth is that political leadership on the issue has been almost completely non-existent. Almost all the state's top elected officials publicly oppose gay marriage, and Maryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals, struck down a lower-court ruling that would have allowed such unions. Whatever is changing attitudes toward whether gays should be allowed to marry is coming from the bottom up, not the top down.

Part of the answer probably lies in the contrast between the overheated rhetoric of gay marriage opponents and the mundane reality of gay married life, which turns out not to be that different from other marriages. Gay couples share household chores, attend family gatherings, go on vacation and pay taxes just as their heterosexual counterparts do. And increasingly they are in families involved in child-rearing. As the sight of gay couples with kids becomes more commonly accepted, it's going to be a lot harder to justify not allowing the parents of such children to marry.

Gay rights opponents' dire predictions of the end of traditional marriage have not come to pass. Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex unions, hasn't dropped into the ocean since its law went into effect, nor has Iowa, whose highest court affirmed the rights of gays to marry a year ago, disappeared in a cloud of dust. In both places couples have continued to enter into traditional heterosexual marriages enthusiastically.

Perhaps the biggest change is that people have simply gotten used to the idea that gay couples are entitled to equal rights under the law — be it the right to visit a loved one in the hospital or the right to be covered under a partner's health-care plan. A younger generation today finds it hard to imagine that just just 60 years ago there were separate water fountains for blacks and whites in some parts of the country; as attitudes about gay rights continue to evolve, future generations may well wonder why the right of gay couples to marry was ever an issue.

Gay rights advocates have already won a series of incremental victories in their fight for equality, most notably state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's advisory opinion this year that Maryland should recognize gay marriages performed in states where such unions are legal. That sets the stage for the inevitable next phase: A public debate and vote on whether to allow gay marriage here. Maryland's current leaders would surely rather duck the question, but they should understand that on this issue the people are slowly but surely leaving them behind.

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