Rocked by an overwhelming vote in favour of amending the state constitution to bar same-sex marriages, gay rights groups across North Carolina today vowed to fight back with demonstrations in several cities in the coming days.
The uncompromising measure, called Amendment 1, was approved by North Carolina voters on yesterday by a 61 to 39 per cent margin with all counties reporting. President Barack Obama called the outcome “disappointing”.
The vote represents a major set-back for the gay rights movement nationally at a time when the issue of gay marriage is suddenly emerging as a major wedge issue in the 2012 presidential election. “We can’t change the results of this vote, but we can determine what comes next,” vowed Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of the Campaign for Southern Equality. “When kids across the state wake up, I want them to know that this story isn't over.” Angered by the vote, gay couples were due to turn up at city offices in Wilson and Durham today to ask to be wed. Same sex couples will stage similar ‘We do’ demonstrations in other cities next week.
All the so-called ‘Bible Belt’ states in the south-eastern US have now taken similar steps. Altogether 29 states in the US have passed constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage. The activism is spawned by many things, including religiosity – the amendment in North Carolina was supported by the 93-year-old Christian icon Billy Graham - and a conservative chorus that sees gay marriage as a symbol of what they consider to be the country’s ‘moral decline’.
It is also a form of backlash because, on a wider canvas, this is one step back for a gay rights movement that has otherwise taken several steps forward of late. Marriage licences are now issued to same-sex couples in six states and in Washington, while laws are pending to make them available in two more. They are not recognized nationally, but polling shows that a small majority of Americans are now accepting of homosexuals marrying, a big change over a few years ago.
A significant subplot is the twisting of the Obama administration. Last weekend, Vice President Joe Biden sparked a minor kerfuffle by proclaiming himself “entirely comfortable” with gay marriage and the Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, said the same the following day. President Barack Obama, however, continues to hedge, motivated no doubt by the knowledge that several of those states pushing back against gay marriage, including North Carolina, will be battleground states in the 2012 presidential contest.
Backers of Amendment 1 celebrated the lopsided result with a reception in Raleigh, sharing slices of wedding cakes with plastic couples – heterosexual clearly – atop the icing. “We are not anti-gay; we are pro-marriage,” said Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman of Vote for Marriage NC. Invoking the Bible, she added: “The point - the whole point – is simply that you don't rewrite the nature of God's design for marriage based on the demands of a group of adults.”
The amendment states: “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.” Thus civil union status for gays is also ruled out. Legal scholars warned that beyond that the amendment could impact on straight couples living together in domestic partnerships, possibly affecting everything from hospital visitation rights to protection in cases of domestic abuse.
A big next step for gay rights organisers will be inserting language to uphold same-sex marriage in the Democratic platform at the party convention in early September and, better still, winkling words of support out of Mr Obama before then. It is hardly helpful, therefore, that the convention will be in Charlotte, North Carolina.