PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — A flurry of activity in efforts to legally recognize gay relationships or ban same-sex marriage is reminding advocates that even though polls indicate growing acceptance, the debate is far from settled in U.S. states.
Rhode Island is pondering a proposal to allow civil unions, a compromise that arose after it became clear there weren’t enough votes in the state legislature to approve same-sex marriage. Minnesota lawmakers voted to put a constitutional marriage ban on the ballot, and the mayor of New York spoke out strongly in favor of same-sex marriage as talks continue in his state.
In Rhode Island, gay marriage advocates say they’re unsatisfied with the proposal to offer civil unions, which provide many of the same legal benefits of marriage without calling it that.
“There’s a special status when you say ‘my wife,’ and civil unions don’t give that,” said Annie Cronin-Silva, of West Warwick, who married a woman in neighboring Massachusetts in 2008. “But things are changing. It’s coming. It’s just so hard to wait.”
Gay marriage is allowed in Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and the District of Columbia. Several other states offer civil unions or domestic partnerships instead. Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii enacted civil unions this year. The debate continues to rage in several other states.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday warned lawmakers in his state that they will be remembered as civil rights obstructionists if they block attempts to pass gay marriage. Opponents have committed $1.5 million to defeat the efforts, matching the amount raised by supporters.
Minnesota lawmakers voted a week ago to put a constitutional prohibition against gay marriage on the 2012 ballot. Voters in 29 states have already added similar amendments, and gay marriage supporters hope to make Minnesota the first state to reject such an amendment.
“It’s a changed debate in Minnesota and in the nation,” said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota. “I’m hoping we can ride that sea change. But we know we have a very big challenge in front of us.”
Even though Massachusetts considers Cronin-Silva and her wife, Melanie Silva, legally married, Rhode Island doesn’t. They’ve had legal agreements drawn up granting rights that are automatic through marriage, such as making medical decisions in an emergency.
Civil unions could spare gay couples an expensive trip to a lawyer, Cronin-Silva said. But she said it’s no substitute for marriage.
Groups on both sides of the debate have long pointed to polls that appear to advance their agenda. But in the past nine months, several major surveys are showing a trend of increasing support for gay marriage.
A Gallup poll released this month found that a majority of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be legal. In 1996, Gallup found that only 27 percent of Americans supported gay marriage. It’s just the latest of several major surveys showing that a slim majority of Americans now support gay marriage.
“I thought for a while it might be one fluky poll,” said Gregory Lewis, a professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University who tracks public attitudes on gay marriage. “But now it’s just one after another. It does seem like this year’s polls are noticeably different even from last year.”
An ABC-Washington Post survey in March found that 53 percent of Americans support gay marriage. An Associated Press poll in August found that 52 percent of Americans think the federal government should extend legal recognition to married gay couples, up from 46 percent the year before.
Opponents note that public opinion polls in Maine and California showed majority support for gay marriage in those states, too — right before voters rejected gay marriage measures. Even in left-leaning Rhode Island, efforts to pass marriage rights stalled this year after legislators balked.
The polls show at least two factors contributing to changing attitudes.
For one, younger Americans of all political persuasions say they’re more tolerant of homosexuality than older generations.
Meghan McCain, the daughter of former Republican presidential candidate and gay marriage opponent Sen. John McCain, is one example of a prominent Republican who says the party’s opposition to gay marriage is causing it to turn off younger voters.
Madeline Koch, a 24-year-old heterosexual Republican, told Minnesota lawmakers to oppose the gay marriage amendment because it would put inequality in the state Constitution.
Second, while older Americans identifying themselves as Republicans remain firmly opposed to gay marriage, Democrats and independents appear to be changing their minds, Lewis said. The Gallup poll found that 69 percent of self-described Democrats support gay marriage, compared with 56 percent the year before.
“The generational changes don’t explain everything,” Lewis said. “There’s a fair amount of Americans who are just changing their minds.”
Gay marriage opponents concede that surveys show increased support for gay marriage. But they say polls are different from ballot questions.
“A poll is just a poll,” said Chris Plante, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island. “The reality is, when people go to the voting booth they protect marriage. Legislatures including our own in Rhode Island recognize that people don’t want it.”
Plante points to similar predictions made about the demise of the anti-abortion movement after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights. Nearly 40 years later, anti-abortion groups have successfully pushed for more restrictions on abortion throughout the U.S.
“They think the old folks will just die out and they’ll win this with the young people,” he said. “Maybe for a season. But I believe we will see young people say, ‘Wait a second. This was an awful social experiment.’ You have to take the long view.”
From the other side of the debate, New York Mayor Bloomberg also endorsed viewing it in context. A measure to legalize gay marriage in the state is being negotiated among Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders, but Cuomo has said he won’t put it to a vote until enough legislators are on board.
The billionaire mayor has lobbied Republican state senators, for whom he is a major campaign funder, but no senator has committed to switching camps.
“As other states recognize the rights of same-sex couples to marry, we cannot stand by and watch,” Bloomberg said Thursday in a Manhattan speech. “To do so would be to betray our civic values and history — and it would harm our competitive edge in the global economy.”