In May 2012 the US State of North Carolina voted to amend their constitution to limit the kinds of civil unions recognised by law. Laura Dunn gives an insider's perspective into the politics behind the poles.
‘Amendment One’ (Senate Bill 514): “An Act to Amend the Constitution to Provide That Marriage Between One Man and One Woman is the Only Domestic Legal Union That Shall Be Valid or Recognized in This State.”
If you asked the average American how they felt about same-sex marriage in 2004, they would have, rhetorically speaking, laughed in your face. Eight years later though, public opinion has shifted for the first time towards majority support for marriage equality, and this trend shows signs of continuing. The Obama administration has been astonishingly queer-friendly: repealing the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that barred gay men and lesbians from the military, and strengthening hate crime legislation. After two terms of Bush’s hostility, this is a coming in from the cold for LGBT Americans: just a decade ago a president who consistently asserts his support for gay rights would have been unthinkable.
Every time LGBT rights have been put to a vote, they have lost
However this slow turning of the tide that can be seen on a national scale does not – regrettably – tell the whole story. On May 8th North Carolinian voters made the decision to amend their state constitution to ban same-sex unions, in a move putting them in line with thirty one other states that have enacted similar laws. To be clear: every time LGBT rights have been put to a vote in this way, they have lost. Generally of course rights are not put to a vote. This is because they are rights. The joke in this case is that same-sex marriage was already roundly outlawed in North Carolina – making the amendment, as one community organiser wryly put it, ‘not only bigoted, but redundant’. To put it bluntly, the amendment was designed to make it harder for some shadowy future party to legalise the marriage of gay couples, on the grounds that heterosexual couples are somehow inherently better. This is vile enough, but the wording was so obtusely broad as to include a slew of (presumably) unintended effects such as reducing domestic violence protection for unmarried victims. It is also worth remembering that the last time NC voters altered their constitution, it was to ban interracial marriage, a cause that used much of the same rhetoric as this year’s battle.
Living in the liberal Triangle area, it is easy to forget how conservative North Carolina can be. While hardly the Deep South of Alabama or Arkansas, much of the state is made up of small towns and rural farming communities, and upholds unfortunate stereotypes of Southern traditionalism in social issues. Evangelical and Southern Baptist churches are pillars of small communities and will openly preach intolerance towards LGBT people; last week Rev. Charles Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church advocated putting “lesbians, queers and homosexuals” behind an electrified fence to die out. This kind of extreme rhetoric is what LGBT North Carolinians have to deal with on a daily basis.
Despite the incredible energy state LGBT organisations put into opposing the initiative, despite the hours individuals spent phone-banking and going door to door, and despite the opposition of local officials, the state’s Democratic governor, the President and even the bill’s original sponsor, the amendment passed 60% to 40%. This clear twenty points is a testament to voters’ kneejerk opposition to gay marriage. In fact the amendment goes so far as to affect all unmarried couples, straight or gay.
Not all about gay marriage
A common message in the Vote No campaigns was that the amendment was not about gay marriage – a strategy to highlight the unintended effects on unmarried couples, which may sway voters who remain opposed to marriage equality. Nonetheless I have no doubt that the majority of voters responded to the question as a Gay Issue. North Carolina was unlikely to respond to calls for queer liberation – is anywhere? – so campaign literature focused on female victims of domestic violence and the children of committed gay couples.
Degaying the message
The results, however, clearly show that degaying the message does not work. The fight for marriage equality will belong to the younger generation, who are overwhelmingly in support of gay rights compared to their elders. Soon we will not have to temper messages of equality: gay people do not need to be normalised with an accompanying family to deserve equal rights. This setback in North Carolina is just another twist in the road to marriage equality – there are signs that the debate could make it all the way to the Supreme Court for a national decision, which would eliminate the piecemeal state-by-state process endemic to the American system. For now though, NC gays have become second-class citizens in their own state, they have been sent the message that they pose such danger that their own constitution must be set against them.