Sunday, January 23, 2011

What's in Store for Marriage Equality in 2011, Part 1

As I'm sure everyone noticed, the 2010 elections were a massive disaster for the Democratic Party, and something of a victory for the far-right wing of the Republican Party. With the Republicans in the majority in the House of Representatives, there's very little chance for any movement on even the most incremental advances in gay rights before the 2012 elections. At the state level, however, the picture actually looks surprisingly good for supporters of marriage equality. While the elections went badly in general for the more supportive candidates, there were a few important victories that should make a real difference over the coming year or two.

The map above shows where we stand right now as far as marriage laws go. The dark blue states already have full equality, lighter blues are for civil unions and domestic partnerships. Reds are for same-sex marriage prohibitions. Some states have banned marriage yet allow for lesser options. Let's see if we can get an idea of what the map will look like a year from now.

Probably the most positive news is that Rhode Island is very likely to pass a marriage equality bill this year. Former Governor Donald Carcieri, an opponent of gay rights, has been replaced by the Independent (former Republican) Lincoln Chafee. Chafee called on the state legislature to pass a marriage equality bill in his inaugural address this year, and it seems to be likely to pass. While not a sure predictor of support for gay rights, the Democrats have a 65–10 majority in the House and a 29–8 (and 1 Independent) majority in the Senate, which ought to be a decent sized cushion against the possibility of anti-equality Democrats.

The next likeliest state to move forward on marriage equality is Maryland. Already, the state recognizes out-of-state marriages, as well as providing for domestic partnerships itself. It isn't certain whether the votes exist for full equality, although it seems likely, with a supermajority of Democrats in both houses of the legislature. The two seats the Democrats picked up in the Senate are thought to seal the deal. If the votes aren't there, the Republican Minority Leader has also proposed a civil unions bill (which doesn't have the support of his caucus, and he stepped down as Minority Leader afterwards), so at least one of the two is very likely to pass. Governor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, is a supporter of marriage equality and would sign a bill if it were to pass the legislature.

New York is an interesting and complicated case, as the Republicans have regained control of the state Senate, but at the same time the situation for marriage equality has likely improved somewhat. Back in 2009, the Senate rejected a bill to allow same-sex marriage in New York, by a vote of 38–24. At the time, the Democrats held a small majority of seats, but 8 Democrats joined all Republicans in opposing the bill. After the 2010 elections, the Republicans hold a small majority, but, by my count, supporters have gained two votes. Andrew Cuomo has replaced David Patterson as governor, and while both are strong supporters of marriage equality, Cuomo enjoys high favorability ratings and would be much more effective champion of a bill. New York state politics is weird (and mostly not in a good way), but I think I've got a decent grasp of the situation, and will try to write it up in its own post where I can cover the details a bit better.

On the civil unions front, Hawaii seems in as good a situation legislatively now as it did last year when the legislature passed a civil unions bill. This time around, however, the governor is Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, who has promised to sign such a bill, rather than Laura Lingle, a Republican, who vetoed it last time. As far as I know there aren't any plans to try for full marriage equality.

Even ahead of Hawaii is Illinois. Acting Governor Pat Quinn, who took over after Rod Blagojevich was impeached, narrowly won reelection in November. He will sign a sign a bill providing for civil unions in a ceremony in Chicago on January 31st. Quinn is a supporter of full equality, but a bill to that effect has never made it out of committee. The Democrats have majorities of 64–54 in the House of Representatives and 35–24 in the Senate currently, although it's entirely unclear (to me, at least) where they stand on marriage equality.

That's all I can really think of for good news that's likely to happen this year from state legislatures. Given the Republican gains in the last election, and especially given the gains made by far-right extremists in this country, I think it's impressive that we can still gain ground on this issue this year. Seriously, the Republican Party of 2010 had re-criminalization of sodomy as part of its platform in at least Texas and Montana, and lost all three openly gay state legislators out of the 4,000 it has countrywide, the first time in years it's been down to zero. Yet progress manages to push on despite them. I'll get to where our current gains may be in danger in Part 2, and maybe get a Part 3 where I can discuss what's currently working through the court system, and what we might see this year.

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