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Time for equal rights for gays is now

Progress is occurring, but Tuesday's rejection of a same-sex marriage law in Maine shows there's still a lot of work to be done.

November 05, 2009

If not in Maine, then where? Until the polls closed Tuesday evening, supporters of same-sex marriage appeared to be within grasp of their first voter victory in the nation. New England has been at the forefront of legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples. The campaign was well run, voter turnout high. Maine residents have a reputation as live-and-let-live sorts, and the polls showed the race as extremely close. Nevertheless, Question 1 -- a measure to ban same-sex marriage -- won solidly. This suggests that despite the moral right on its side, the fight for equality for gays and lesbians will be more difficult, more complicated and probably will take a good while longer than it should.

That's not to deny the progress this nation is making. Legislatures and courts in several states have understood that same-sex marriage does more than strengthen families and the institution of marriage; it is an essential right. On the same day that Maine rejected same-sex marriage, Washington state voters appeared to approve giving gays and lesbians in domestic partnerships the same practical rights as married couples. Newly approved federal law recognizes that crimes committed because of the victim's sexual orientation are hate crimes; next on the federal agenda is ending employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Still, we now know that it will take more than well-prepared arguments and savvily run campaigns to bring about wider victory for same-sex marriage. Lifelong marriage traditions and deeply held religious beliefs have a strong grip on many voters. Younger people, who have grown up in a world of greater societal tolerance of different sexual orientations, are far more likely to vote for gay marriage. But even that greater acceptance came about only through years of gay-rights struggle -- legal, legislative and cultural.

The Maine experience indicates that this struggle continues uphill -- and it can't afford to pause now. Gays and lesbians shouldn't have to wait for an entire generation to reach voting age in order to receive equal rights.

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