Same-sex marriage laws have swept New England - Other States will follow.

21 May 2009

"IF MY dad married a man, who would be my mom?" asks a golden-haired child in an ad from the National Organisation for Marriage, a group that campaigns to keep wedlock heterosexual. "I'm confused," adds another adorable moppet.

Ethan Mondor, however, is not confused. Now nine years old, he was plucked from foster care at the age of four and adopted by two gay men, Rodney Mondor and Ray Dumont. They are both his daddies. But if one of them has to be mom, it would be Ray. Rodney does daddyish things such as helping to coach Ethan's little-league baseball team. Ray plays flamboyant parts in amateur theatricals. He also plays the "mommy" role at home by doing most of the worrying, he says.

Families like Ray and Rodney's are becoming boringly normal. Last week the legislatures in both Maine and New Hampshire passed bills recognising same-sex marriage. In Maine, Governor John Baldacci immediately signed the bill into law. In New Hampshire, Governor John Lynch was still pondering what to do as The Economist went to press.

New England is now a hotbed of equality. In 2003 Massachusetts became the first American state to legalise gay marriage. Connecticut followed suit last year, and Vermont last month. If Mr Lynch declines to wield his veto, five out of six states in New England will have allowed gay marriage in less time than it took to dig a tunnel under Boston. Only Rhode Island, a tiny state with a large Catholic population, shows no sign of permitting it.

In all, a dozen states now recognise gay unions in some way (see map). California, New Jersey and Oregon allow civil unions that are marriages in all but name. Hawaii and Washington state allow gay couples some of the legal benefits of marriage. New York and Washington, DC recognise gay marriages performed in other jurisdictions and may soon decide to perform their own.

Even more encouraging for gay activists, politicians in liberal states are discovering that they can cast gay-friendly votes without being punished for it on polling day. Seven state legislatures have now voted to allow gay marriage or some watered-down variant of it. This marks a significant change. The first states to allow gay marriage did so by court order: unelected judges suddenly announced that laws limiting marriage to straight couples were unconstitutional. This struck many Americans as undemocratic and helped fuel a furious backlash. In 2006 alone, anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives passed in seven out of eight states where they were put to a vote. In California, a court order allowing gay marriage was overturned by a referendum last year. Laws passed by elected lawmakers may be harder to reverse.

Not that social conservatives won't try. In Maine they hope to gather more than 55,000 signatures in 90 days, thus forcing a referendum on whether to re-ban gay marriage. But advocates of gay marriage have the wind at their backs. Most Americans support either gay marriage or gay civil unions. And according to Gallup, the proportion of Americans who think gay marriage should be legal has risen to 40% from 27% in the mid-1990s.

Although public opinion has not shifted much in the past couple of years, gays can expect to add to their gains. Young Americans are much more laid-back than their elders: those aged 18-34 are twice as likely to support gay marriage as those over 65. They are also twice as likely to have a close gay friend or family member. Familiarity breeds tolerance, which makes it easier for gays to come out. Conservatives cannot break this circle.

For one thing, their arguments are rather abstract. They say that gay marriage undermines the traditional sort, but have trouble explaining how. They say that traditional marriage provides an excellent environment for raising children, which is true. But when people meet doting gay parents such as Ray and Rodney, they find it hard to argue that their son would be better off in a foster home. Kevin Smith, a family-values campaigner in New Hampshire, worries that when gay marriage is legal, children will be taught in schools that it is acceptable. An increasing number of Americans would reply: So what?

Gay marriage is likely to continue spreading from state to state. At the federal level, however, it faces higher hurdles. Gays expect nothing from Republican administrations and are taken for granted by Democratic ones. Bill Clinton signed the Defence of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of gay marriage. So even where gay couples enjoy all the legal benefits of marriage under state law, they do not enjoy equality under federal law.

Barack Obama says he supports civil unions but, as a Christian, opposes gay marriage. The incoherence of this stance makes it conveniently difficult to attack. Mr Obama has promised to repeal the Defence of Marriage Act and to let gays serve openly in the armed forces. But he has made no effort to do either.

That said, most gay Americans above a certain age have only to dip into their memories for proof that their country has grown dramatically more tolerant. Terry Guerette, a lesbian from a religious family in Maine, remembers her late father saying that all "queers" should be shot. Her relatives all embrace her now, she says.

Article taken from The Economist