What a difference 30 months makes.
Just over two-and-a-half years ago, voters headed to the polls in North Carolina to vote on Amendment 1, a proposed amendment that would amend the state constitution to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions. This was a bill legislatively referred with a majority of Republican support in both houses of the state legislature. The bill was set to be voted on in May of 2012 and in the time leading up to the vote, there emerged a pattern of both misinformation and misunderstanding. For example, a Public Policy poll found that only 38% voters who knew that the amendment banned both same-sex marriages and civil unions supported it while 72% of voters who thought the amendment just banned same-sex marriages supported it. In addition, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) contributed $427,000 in support of the amendment bringing in outside money to sway voters in the Tar Heel State.
Because the amendment was voted on during primary season, voter turnout was extremely low. In fact, only 34% of registered North Carolina voters participated in ultimately deciding the fate of gay marriage in a state of over 6 million people. When all was said and done, Amendment 1 passed with 61% of the vote while winning 92 out of 100 counties in the state. As disheartened as proponents of marriage equality were with the result, there remained a small glimmer of hope: Education. The eight counties where the amendment failed are home to some of North Carolina’s most prestigious colleges and universities such as Duke, UNC, NC State, UNC Asheville, and UNC Charlotte. For what it was worth, it seemed that at the very least there were pockets of tolerance for marriage equality in an otherwise sea of intolerance.
Flash forward two-and-a-half years later. On October 10th, Amendment 1 was found unconstitutional by Obama-appointed federal judge Max O. Cogburn, Jr. In his ruling, Cogburn said:
“The court determines that North Carolina’s laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are unconstitutional as a matter of law. The issue before this court is neither a political issue nor a moral issue. It is a legal issue and it is clear as a matter of what is now settled law in the Fourth Circuit that North Carolina laws prohibiting same sex marriage, refusing to recognize same sex marriages originating elsewhere, and/or threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional.”
And just like that, gay couples could officially wed for the first time ever in the Tar Heel State.
This monumental victory for North Carolina concluded a historic week nationwide for marriage equality. Ten states in the past week alone have now been added to the list of states where gay marriage is recognized, bringing the total number of states up to 29. It has gotten to a point where 60% of Americans now live in a state where gay marriage is legal. Despite the fact that Ted Cruz wants to propose a constitutional amendment to protect a state’s rights to deny gay couple equal protection under the law, the truth is that he and other religious zealots continue to be on the wrong side of history. As marriage equality now is supported by nearly 60% of Americans nationwide and nearly three-quarters of millennials, the inevitability of having nationwide marriage equality is rapidly approaching.
As much as proponents of marriage equality would applaud an immediate ruling legalizing gay marriage, the truth of the matter is that the country actually mirrors North Carolina in a lot of ways. As a whole in the United States, the areas that support marriage equality are those that are more diverse, progressive, and educated. That is why marriage equality first came to the northeastern states as well as the western states, which are areas where people simply have both more exposure to, and acceptance of, the gay communities. For people in these areas, especially those in large metropolitan areas, interactions with gay people have simply become a way of life. That is why many straight supporters of gay marriage have come around on the issue: They have seen somebody they know be denied the right to be with the person they love.
The same can be said of the nationwide trend toward marriage equality. With Monday’s ruling, red states like Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah have now joined the ranks of the states where marriage equality is law of the land. Much like North Carolina, each of these states has its progressive pockets where people are accepting and supportive of marriage equality. Although there isn’t overwhelming support in the states, the fact remains like with more exposure to gay marriage and equality, people in these states will see that their fears have been grossly exaggerated. Notice how some of marriage equality’s biggest opponents have now fallen silent now that their states have accepted marriage equality. It’s almost as if Pennsylvania’s own Rick Santorum has been disappointed to find that gay people in his state have not been engaged in sexual acts with their pets, as he once feared. As much as Ted Cruz likes to pander to his Tea Party base, the fact is that the large metropolitan areas in his home state of Texas overwhelmingly support marriage equality. Should Texas fall to marriage equality the same way Pennsylvania did, Cruz would lose the support of even his most fervent supporters.
As more and more states legalize marriage equality, we will see the trends showcased in North Carolina to continue to emerge nationwide. Each state has its pockets of diverse, progressive, educated citizens who are on the right side of history. As marriage equality continues to sweet across the nation, these largely urban areas will be the center of change with the less developed parts of the states lagging behind. However, much like racial integration, these areas that don’t initially accept marriage equality will temporarily put up a fight, but in the end they will realize their efforts are futile. Much like those that were against integration, these people will simply lament the fact that the good old days are behind them and that the country they once knew is as good as dead to them. What they don’t realize is that the country isn’t dead, but rather it’s moving in toward a new, more accepting, and more equal society.
One state at a time.