ASHLAND, ORE. — The resounding "no" that voters gave to officially recognizing homosexual couples as married marks a major setback for the gay-marriage movement - and shows how the issue continues to divide the nation politically and geographically.
In all 11 states where they were on the ballot, measures banning same-sex marriage won - in most states overwhelmingly. Even in socially liberal Oregon, where gay-rights activists poured resources into defeating the measure, it passed handily. The other states where the measure passed were Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah.
"Given the success of these measures, we can expect other states to follow suit," says Craig Rimmerman, professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.
With judges and elected officials in Massachusetts, Oregon, New Jersey, Louisiana, California, and elsewhere weighing in, there's no doubt the issue has considerable political significance.
But this week's votes can also be seen in the broader context of how society changes - and has been changing - on issues involving deeply held values touching on religious beliefs and human identity. "The general trend in the last decade or so has been towards more acceptance of gay and lesbian people in a variety of contexts," says William Lunch, professor of political science at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Politically, most of that has happened at the state and local level, including among businesses and other private institutions. Domestic partnerships are recognized in many cases for purposes of granting employment benefits. Laws prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing and other areas. For the most part, "don't ask, don't tell" has worked in the military since former President Clinton ordered that change in 1993. Vermont led the way in granting official status to same-sex "civil unions" that include virtually all the legal benefits of marriage between a man and a woman.
While polls show that most Americans oppose same-sex marriage, they are less likely to approve amending the US Constitution to ban it. And they are increasingly likely to favor civil unions.
Still, conservative activists are ready to fight civil unions as well. In eight of the 11 states voting on the issue this week, the ban approved by voters extended to civil unions as well as same-sex marriage.
But gay-rights activists are taking the long view. "This is a painful setback," says Roey Thorp, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon. "But on the road to equality and freedom, there are always setbacks. There are always hurdles."
Did the measures on same-sex marriage help tilt the election toward Mr. Bush? Both Bush and Sen. John Kerry oppose same-sex marriage; both support civil unions. Yet opponents of same-sex marriage - a hot-button issue among social conservatives - also appear to have been a big factor in putting nine of those 11 states into Bush's win column. In Ohio, Catholic bishops as well as black and evangelical church leaders voiced strong support for the measure, which won by a margin of 24 percent.
"It certainly didn't hurt Bush's efforts," says Dr. Rimmerman, author of "From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States."
Yet it can be expected that civil unions for same-sex couples increasingly will be debated in state legislatures and appear on state ballots. "There's a slow evolution going on with regard to gays and lesbians in American life," says Dr. Lunch. "Cultural changes slowly are working their way into the norms, expectations, and politics of the country."