Under current Maine law, marriage licenses are granted to opposite-sex couples, but are denied to same-sex couples. On Nov. 6, voters will decide whether they want the state to continue that policy of treating same-sex and opposite-sex couples differently.
In thinking about this issue, it is instructive to ask who actually supports legalizing same-sex marriage. The Pew Research Center has addressed that very question, by polling Americans about their support for same-sex marriage.
Nationally, opposition fell from 57 percent in 2001 to just 44 percent in the center's most recent polling this year. Support for same-sex marriage rose over that same period from 35 percent to 48 percent (higher than the level of opposition).
In Maine, recent polls indicate that a majority of likely voters (as many as 57 percent in one poll) support same-sex marriage.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Pew national data indicate that Democrats and independents have shown the greatest increases in support, with Republicans showing the least support and the smallest increase over time.
Additionally, faith makes a difference. Among those most opposed to same-sex marriage were black Protestants and white evangelical Protestants. Interestingly, Catholics and white mainline Protestants were more supportive. In fact, a majority of U.S. Catholics (53 percent) supported legalizing same-sex marriage.
Most interesting are generational differences. In the words of the Pew report, “Younger generations express higher levels of support for same-sex marriage.” For example, in 2012, 41 percent of baby boomers (Americans born between 1946 and 1964) supported same-sex marriage. By contrast, 63 percent of so-called millenials (those born after 1980) supported same-sex marriage.
Such generational differences are important because, as younger Americans grow into positions of political influence and as they vote more frequently, their attitudes will have a greater influence on public policy. In other words, today’s young Americans are tomorrow’s leaders and voters.
What’s more, even today, all generations are shifting in the direction of greater support for same-sex marriage. For instance, that 41 percent level of support among Baby Boomers is higher than it was in 2001 (when only 32 percent supported it). Even though some of the oldest Americans in the sample (those born between 1928 and 1945) were the most skeptical about same-sex marriage, their support also rose from just 21 percent in 2001 to 33 percent in 2012.
What about in states where same-sex marriage has been legalized? Do people in those states think the sky has fallen? No.
For instance, Public Policy Polling found earlier this year that in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004, 67 percent of those polled said that legalizing same-sex marriage had not affected them at all, and an additional 19 percent said it has had a positive impact. In short, 86 percent of Massachusetts residents said that legalizing same-sex marriage either had no impact or it had a positive impact on their lives.
The bottom line is that more Americans support legalizing same-sex marriage than oppose it, and that support is only going to grow as younger Americans become more active voters and leaders, and as more people realize that people in states that have legalized same-sex marriage don’t feel they’ve been hurt by it.
I understand that some will view these trends as regrettable and will resist them. I respect their sincerity, but they are swimming against a current of public opinion that is unlikely to change direction.
The question for the rest of us is where we want Maine to be in relation to these trends. If a new national majority is arising in support of marriage equality, do we really want Maine to lag behind, in much the same way that southern states lagged behind and resisted the struggle for racial equality? Or do we want Maine to take its place among those states at the forefront of this movement for fair treatment of all Americans?
On Nov. 6, we will decide if, on this issue, Maine will live up to its state motto, which translates to "I lead."
Michael Sargent is a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Bates College.