It's well known that the Massachusetts court decision mandating gay marriage has produced a backlash elsewhere. Voters in 14 states have approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages, Texas is sure to follow in November and several more will do so in 2006. But if you look beyond matrimony and focus on less volatile gay-rights issues, you find something interesting: The furor over marriage has made other forms of legal protection for gays, once considered quite radical, seem modest and reasonable by comparison.
Over the past couple of years, more than a dozen states have passed anti-discrimination laws or offered other legal guarantees to gays and lesbians. New Mexico passed a long-stalled gay-rights bill and expanded its hate crimes law to cover gay and transgender individuals. Illinois banned anti-gay discrimination in housing and employment. Connecticut became the first state to offer civil unions to gay and lesbian couples without prodding from a judge. And just last month, the California Supreme Court ruled that businesses providing discounts or other benefits to married couples must offer equivalent breaks to same-sex domestic partners.
Compared with the prospect of gay couples going to the chapel, these other ideas just don't sound so threatening anymore. "We went from the Right being absolutely opposed to any relationship recognition to actually proposing civil unions as a viable alternative to marriage," says Carrie Evans, state legislative director for Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian advocacy group.
Not everyone, of course, is happy about the piecemeal expansion of rights based on sexual orientation. Earlier this year, Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich vetoed a pair of measures aimed at state recognition of domestic partnerships in health insurance and property ownership. Maine, which has twice voted in opposition to an anti- discrimination statute, seems poised to do so again this November. "The people have consistently said they don't want this," says Paul Madore, of Maine Grassroots Coalition, a co-sponsor of the November ballot initiative.
Still, if there's a pattern for the gay-rights movement, it seems to be this: a few big and highly conspicuous setbacks; a larger number of small victories. Unready as the country clearly is to grant gays the privilege of marrying, there's even less chance that they'll be returning to the political closet anytime soon.