In the future, when historians of the LGBT rights movement write their books about American same-sex marriage, they will look to March 21, 2012 as the point of no return, the Gettysburg of the war over LGBT rights. It was the day that the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted against repealing the state’s same-sex marriage law.
Not repealing a law may not seem like an astounding victory, especially when compared to how much effort it took to get the law enacted not quite three years ago—too-close-for-comfort passages in the New Hampshire House and Senate and then the uncertainty over whether (Democratic) Governor John Lynch would even sign it. Unlike neighboring Vermont when it passed its same-sex marriage law, New Hampshire’s legislature did not have anywhere near enough votes to overcome a veto. Lynch, despite a professed personal objection to same-sex marriage, relented and signed the bill into law. On January 1, 2010, New Hampshire began sanctioning same-sex marriages, which replaced an earlier civil unions law.
Also in 2010, the American public overwhelmingly voted Republican in national and state elections, and New Hampshire’s legislature, which was majority Democrat, became overwhelmingly Republican–so much so that Republicans had enough votes to overcome any gubernatorial veto. All eyes were fixed on New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage law. Same-sex marriage advocates were particularly worried given that in the past two years voters in Maine and California took away marriage rights from gay and lesbian couples. Losing New Hampshire would be extremely painful. Maybe more so.
It is tempting to paint all of New England as bright azure on the political map, but that is not the case. Political opinion in New England indeed skews Democrat, but New Hampshire is more purple than blue. Fitting for a state whose motto is “Live Free or Die,” there is a very strong libertarian streak in the New Hampshire ethos. There is a suspicion of big government (ironic given that the New Hampshire legislature, the General Court, is the second largest in the country behind Congress and the fourth largest English-speaking legislature in the world) but there is also a “live and let live” attitude. In other words, New Hampshire libertarians are closer to true libertarianism rather than Ron Paul acolytes. Paul is less a libertarian than an isolationist, social conservative who hates the Drug War and the Federal Reserve. New Hampshire is many things, but Mississippi or Texas it is not.
As expected, there were indeed efforts in New Hampshire to strip same-sex couples of the right to marry. At first the General Court did not want to take it up, and for a year they successfully avoided it. But pressure from within (an effort spearheaded by Representative David Bates) and without (groups such as the National Organization for Marriage) eventually brought the issue to a boil. Governor Lynch vowed to veto any attempt to repeal the same-sex marriage law. Although the Republicans theoretically hold enough votes to override a veto, a good number of legislators from the very substantial libertarian wing of the party said they would vote against an override–enough of them stood up that proponents of repeal were positive they would not have enough votes to overcome the veto.
Rep. David Bates thought he found a solution, abolish same-sex marriage and in its place reinstate the old civil unions law. All same-sex marriages would retroactively become civil unions (unlike in California where the marriages that took place prior to Prop 8 remained marriages), which in Bates’s mind, and the mind of some other legislators, was the same thing except for the word. Abolishing all same-sex couples’ protection was so unlikely that even the bigots at NOM and the state’s branch of the Catholic Church backed the civil unions bill–something they never do. To Bates and his allies putting forth civil unions was the only way to get the libertarians on his side. There was some blowback; one Republican legislator, Seth Cohn, was so angry at the attempt to repeal same-sex marriage, that he proposed an amendment to the bill that would ban marriage between left-handed people. I am not privy to the internal workings of the New Hampshire legislature or pro-marriage forces in New England, but my sense was that the general feeling was that passage of the repeal by the House was inevitable and the real battle would be to garner enough support to prevent an override of the veto–or in the longer term, if the override attempt failed this year, to ensure that the General Court would not be able to pass the bill under a future Republican governor who would sign it.
On March 21, 2012 though the House essentially ended the debate for good. Not only did the repeal attempt fail, it failed by a substantial margin, 211 to 116. There are only 103 Democrats in the House. 118 Republicans voted not to repeal the law. In practical terms that means more Republicans voted against the repeal than for it. When the law initially passed in 2009, only seven House Republicans voted in favor.
It is very easy for the LGBT community to tar Republicans as homophobic bigots, and this is in large part because the national Republican party does this to itself. The GOP gladly aligned itself with the so-called Moral Majority in the 1970’s and 80’s, and today any person who seriously wishes to be considered for the Republican Presidential nomination must burnish impressive homophobic credentials. Why else could Rick Santorum, who offers nothing but a vision for theocracy, do so well? Mitt Romney’s SuperPAC donated $10,000 to NOM for its efforts to repeal Prop 8. The homophobia has gotten worse since the Tea Party took over and the party has been steadily driving out anyone who is not ideologically “pure,” especially on matters of abortion and same-sex marriage (remember Dede Scozzafava?) It’s the opposite side of the coin from the 1960’s and 70’s when the Southern Democrats, who were once part of the New Deal coalition, became Republicans following the passage of civil rights laws and the end of Jim Crow. They have now driven out liberal and moderate Republicans with their intransigence.
That is why the victory in New Hampshire was so stunning. It was Republicans who made a gay rights victory possible. Not just a handful like in Washington, Maryland, or New York. A majority of voting Republicans–well over 100–turned their backs on the homophobia in their party. This is the first real indication that LGBT rights is transcending political party and becoming solely a matter of fundamental fairness and human dignity.
Again, New Hampshire is not Mississippi, and I do not expect to see a same-sex marriage bill come out of Jackson any time soon (let alone one with Republican votes), but this is the point of no return. Some Republicans have started to realize that they can no longer stand athwart history and yell, “Stop.” Because the Republicans now see their gay siblings, friends, cousins, parents, neighbors, children, grandchildren, coworkers, nieces, and nephews, they are finally able to start looking at the rest of us and see us as humans rather than sexual organs. Because of that, they would not–could not–take rights away from us.
This is the momentum the LGBT rights movement needed. There is so much work to be done and very quickly in time for November. New Hampshire Republicans proved that the work is not in vain.