Why yesterday’s vote is more likely to hasten marriage equality in North Carolina than delay it
Assume that a couple of years back you had been thinking about how to bring about marriage equality for North Carolina’s LGBT community. What might have been your first steps? What would you have done to jumpstart the issue in what was by any fair assessment, a hidebound, conservative, Bible Belt state with essentially zero tradition of high-profile gay rights advocacy?
At the time, the answers to these questions would have been elusive. The state had a longstanding law banning same sex marriage. Leaders of both major political parties were strong, on-the-record opponents. Support in the public opinion polls was very low. The possibility of a successful court challenge seemed remote at best. Even most liberal activists were indifferent; having never really thought much about the issue or, if they had, maintaining a cynical pessimism. Even the flurry of activity around the country in recent years – from the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” to the emergence of full marriage equality in a handful of northern states — seemed not have an impact in North Carolina. By just about any measurement, the issue in North Carolina was, in a word, “dead.”
And then came 2011 and the fateful decision of North Carolina Republicans to advance an amendment to the state constitution.
You know what’s happened since that decision last fall to ram through a national hate group-approved proposal that’s among the most extreme in the country: a remarkable and inspiring change.
Forced to take sides and to really confront what it means to deny hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens a core human right that the vast majority takes for granted, large numbers of North Carolinians underwent a remarkable transformation. In just a few months, millions of people who would have never given the idea of same sex marriage even a hint of sympathetic consideration – straight-laced middle-aged bankers and religiously conservative African-American pastors, self-absorbed college kids and church-going grandmothers, even Republican politicians and think tankers – looked in the mirror and really thought about what our state’s lack of marriage equality means and what it would mean to enshrine that discrimination in the constitution.
And then – perhaps even more remarkably – they did something else: they spoke up publicly. They put signs in their yards and on their cars. They self-identified as opponents of the amendment in letters to the editor and on Facebook. They gave money and talked openly about the issue to friends and family members.
And they voted. In an otherwise low-energy primary with no presidential contests at all, hundreds of thousands of people turned out to say “no” to discrimination. They turned out in all regions of the state. In the state’s largest urban counties where media coverage was most intense and accurate information the most plentiful, they voted “no” by sizable majorities.
Overcoming long odds
And to make all this that much more remarkable, it occurred in an environment in which the really big national money and political figures were AWOL. Sure, Bill Clinton recorded a robocall at the last minute and a lot of good people from around the country chimed in. But, make no mistake, the big money at the national level decided early on that the amendment would be impossible to stop and stayed away. By any fair and honest assessment, the “no” campaign was a true grassroots, shoestring operation.
And yet, despite these handicaps, the “against” vote was surprisingly large. Had just a couple hundred thousand people — a tiny fragment of the state’s adult population — seen the light and changed their minds, the amendment would have failed outright. If you think about it, it’s really quite remarkable.
Indeed, if the experts and Public Policy Polling are to be believed – and when it came to the actual vote, they were just about spot on – a large majority of North Carolinians oppose the actual substance of the amendment, but simply couldn’t connect the amendment to its actual impact. Many voters didn’t actually understand the amendment at all!
Add to this the blatant and shameless appeals to hate and intolerance propagated by so many pastors and priests – from the embarrassing and troubled mega-church zealots like Fayetteville’s Sean Harris to the backward-looking, top-down push from the state’s ultra-conservative Catholic hierarchy – and it’s really amazing that the “against” forces managed to do as well as they did.
So what now? Where does the marriage equality camp go from here? Clearly, nowhere but up. In a state in which the movement lacked momentum and a rallying cry – some kind of a tangible and visible manifestation of hate and exclusion against which to fight and organize – we now have our target.
Eight months ago in this space, I worried about the damage that the amendment fight would do to our state and its public psyche. In particular, I worried about how it would divide us and force us to “choose sides.”
But I also wrote the following:
[R]egardless of the outcome of the vote, there can be no doubt that the months to come will speed up the process – already well underway – in which North Carolinians are coming, at long last, to accept and embrace the concept of LGBT equality. This time next year, we can rest assured that more people than ever before will accept LGBT North Carolinians as full and complete citizens. The trend on this matter is strong and irreversible and the impending campaign will abet it.
Today, it’s clear that the predictions about actually speeding progress were accurate. Rather than harming the public debate and turning it disastrously toxic, the amendment passed (if such a thing is possible) with a whimper. Even conservative Democrats who voted for the amendment last September spoke publicly against it in recent weeks. Many proponents ended up almost sheepish and embarrassed. Conservative corporate executives ran for cover. The top architect, House Speaker Thom Tillis, even called it a generational matter and predicted repeal in the foreseeable future.
So, here on May 9, 2012, the bottom line is this: There are plenty of reasons for caring and thoughtful people to be frustrated and depressed this morning. The near-term impact of the new law will be a lot of unnecessary confusion in our legal system and a lot more wrong-headed and mean-spirited pain and exclusion for a lot of human beings.
But the following is also true: Full marriage equality was never going to come to North Carolina until millions of people woke up to the truth and began to act on it. And when it comes to making such a process a reality, there’s been no single more effective force in state history than Amendment One.
Twenty years ago people picketed and pilloried Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh for performing “holy union” ceremonies within its own walls that had no legal effect. Last night, voters in the county where Pullen is located voted against marriage discrimination for everyone by a large majority.
The proponents of the Amendment may have won the battle last night, but it will ultimately prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. Amendment opponents would, obviously, never have chosen this path, but now that it’s been thrust upon them, there’s no denying the following: 1) the day on which North Carolinians will no longer tolerate marriage discrimination is coming sooner rather than later, and 2) the last eight months have only served to expedite the process.
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