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There was a lot at stake this election season — the presidential election, elections for U.S. Congress, and elections for state and local public offices across the nation. But in many states and counties, choices between candidates weren’t the only decisions on the ballot. Citizens also voted on policy proposals, several of which are already having an impact beyond their state borders.

In Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington, voters decided whether or not to support gay marriage. In Maryland, Maine and Washington, voters chose to legalize gay marriage while a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman was struck down in Minnesota. Advocates had been working hard in all four states to build support for these initiatives as shown in Buzzfeed’s photo series. After the election, they celebrated these successes as a major turning point in public opinion. They mark the first time voters (not legislators or the courts) chose to support same-sex marriage after it was voted against 32 times in various states since the late 1990s, according to a Huffington Post article. Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign — which endorsed and raised money for these ballot initiatives — was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “It truly was a milestone year.” An article in The Los Angeles Times also noted that, in addition to the decisions in these four states, other victories for gay rights include the re-election of President Barack Obama who announced his support for gay marriage in May and the election of the first openly gay U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin.

This “milestone year” was not without disappointment for gay rights advocates as those in North Carolina know. As discussed in this Politico article, in the May primary, North Carolinians voted to pass Amendment One — a constitutional amendment that defines marriage between a man and a woman as the only recognized legal union in the state. But although the measure passed, gay rights advocates made significant gains among North Carolina voters. A leader of the campaign against Amendment One said by calling their effort Protect All N.C. Families, they reframed how people looked at the issue and came up with a different way to define “family values,” a term often used by opponents of gay marriage. As demonstrated in the campaign’s video, they also built a broad coalition of diverse groups of North Carolinians, garnering support from groups, such as African Americans, who have typically opposed gay marriage in the past. The final vote might not have been in favor of same-sex marriage, but the campaign against Amendment One was able to gain more momentum than even national gay rights advocates expected, which demonstrates shifting attitudes even in the traditionally conservative southeastern United States.

The strides made for gay rights this year have been a long time coming. According to several studies, Americans have become increasingly tolerant of gay and lesbian rights for several decades, but these changes in attitude have been gradual and hard to translate into public policy. Government institutions, changing demographics and political opportunities have all played a role in the evolution of gay rights in the United States.

Most studies and historical analyses of the gay rights movement in the United States recognize the late 1960s and 1970s as the starting point when activists began fighting discrimination. These activists were met with opposition from counter-movements, including the Christian anti-gay movement, which was explored in Tina Fetner’s study published in 2001. Fetner found that gay rights activists responded to vocal opponents of gay and lesbian rights — such as Anita Bryant who formed the organization Save Our Children, Inc. in 1977 — with different language and themes. Gay rights activists framed gays and lesbians as victimized minorities and used language that implied an “us versus them” perspective. Although that was a transformation from language focused on justice and equality for all, it did evoke a greater sense of urgency for protecting the rights of homosexual individuals. The Christian anti-gay movement also helped thrust the issue of gay rights into the national spotlight.

Additional studies have compared and contrasted public opinion and institutional support of gay rights in the United States and Canada in recent decades. Overall Canadians tend to be more supportive of gay rights and their policies — including the 2005 Civil Marriage Act legalizing same-sex marriage in the nation — reflect that. But there are other factors that contribute to differences, as pointed out in a 2005 report by Miriam Smith analyzing the legalization of same-sex marriage in the two countries. She noted that Canada’s legalization was more of a symbolic measure, because homosexual couples are already granted most of the rights guaranteed to heterosexual couples joined in civil unions. Meanwhile, America’s legalization is an effort to achieve relationship rights, such as joint child custody, not yet granted to homosexual couples. She argued that part of the reason for this divergence is because, unlike in Canada, American states were allowed to criminalize sodomy until the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court case, which declared that to be unconstitutional. Before then, anti-gay activists had an easier time framing homosexuality as immoral and punishable, putting gay rights supporters on the defensive. In addition, American anti-gay activists also have more institutional avenues to push forward their agenda in government.

Although there are clearly policy differences on gay rights between Canada and the United States, public opinion surveys have shown increasing tolerance of homosexuality in both countries, as demonstrated by Robert Anderson and Tina Fetner’s study of attitudinal change from 1981 to 2000. Not only did they find differences from one generation to the next, with each younger generation becoming more tolerant, but they also found that people became more tolerant within their lifetime. In his 2008 study, “The Shifting Foundations of Public Opinion and Gay Rights,” Paul Brewer found that Americans became much more supportive of gay rights policies during the 1990s in part because of shifting predispositions — such as beliefs about equality and morality, feelings toward gay and lesbian people, and ideology and partisanship — and how people used those predispositions to think about the issues at stake. The way people thought about gay rights issues was shaped by media events, signals from powerful people, and more information about the issues. Also more people reported that they knew someone who is gay or lesbian, which in turn appeared to lead to more support for gay rights.

The trend of growing support for gay rights policies was also clear in Darren Sherkat’s study of support for same-sex marriage in the United States from 1998 to 2008. Overall support of same-sex marriage has increased, and Sherkat predicted that the majority of Americans would support same-sex marriage in the next decade. According to four Pew Research Center surveys this year, which found about 48 percent of Americans favor legalizing same-sex marriage, it looks like his prediction was right.

But even as gay rights advocates celebrate these steps forward, they can’t forget the other findings of Sherkat’s study. He found much of the opposition to same-sex marriage in the United States is rooted in certain political and religious groups. As he expected at the outset, Sherkat reported that people who identify as members of a sectarian religious denomination, fundamentalist Christians, Republicans, and political conservatives are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage. While there are varying levels of support and opposition within these groups, including many churches and religious denominations that have come out in support of gay marriage, these differences still exist and are a force the gay rights movement can’t ignore, as the campaign against Amendment One in North Carolina realized. The Pew Research Center’s report on the different levels of same-sex marriage support across regions in the United States gives further insight on this, revealing more opposition in the South — a predominantly conservative region with a higher proportion of evangelical Christians.

At the same time, this year showed that more people than ever in the United States, especially younger generations, believe that denying rights to gay and lesbian people is no longer acceptable, and this trend looks like it will continue, according to an article in The Washington Times. Public opinion in support of same-sex marriage is finally translating into policy. More political opportunities are emerging, and change is happening. Perhaps it’s time for the shrinking groups opposing same-sex marriage to get on board with the rest of the country. These groups can’t be ignored, but they are also losing influence as our country transforms. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in his analysis of the election, “The emerging America,” this November the world saw “a picture of America at its best: edgy, experimental, open-minded — and brilliantly diverse.”

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