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Same-Sex Marriage And The Cultural Shift

San Diegans Rally Against Prop 8

When the California Supreme Court handed down its 6-to-1 decision upholding Proposition 8 May 26, reaction was swift from both sides. Proposition 8 supporters cheered and immediately geared up for the next fight to protect traditional marriage between a man and a woman. Same-sex marriage advocates laid plans for that next fight to extend marriage to gays and lesbians.

Underlying all this activity was a pervasive question: Will the next group of voters change the results? And if there is a shift in people’s attitudes toward same-sex marriage, will it show itself quickly enough to justify another ballot proposition in 2010?

The new measure, of course, would not ask the voters to agree that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California. This, after all, is now a bona fide Constitutional amendment, according to the state high court. The new proposition would have to specify that marriage between people of the same gender is valid and recognized in California.


The history of the California struggle over same-sex marriage is more than 30 years old and involves all branches of government. The Legislature clearly demonstrated its cultural shift. In 1977, it defined marriage “as a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman.” But 20 years later, the Legislature established domestic partner rules and gradually increased those benefits until registered domestic partners had almost all rights and responsibilities of married spouses, but still weren’t married. In 2005 and 2007, the Legislature approved legalizing same-sex marriage. But Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed both bills. Two voter-approved propositions reinforced that there would be no marriage in California between same-sex couples. The California Supreme Court was on all sides of this issue during the last 5 years. It stopped San Francisco’s same-sex weddings authorized by its Mayor Gavin Newsome. Then it voided all those marriages. Last year, the Court overturned Proposition 22 which banned same-sex marriage. Then this month, the same Court agreed with Proposition 8 that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

So can same-sex marriage advocates take heart from this history or is a more pronounced cultural shift needed for the public to respond differently? Some believe that the cultural shift is generational, that the current crop of teens will think of same-sex marriage as no big deal when it reaches voting age. Others see the values of the younger generation reflecting the attitudes of the parents and that if there is a shift, it will have the speed of tectonic plate movement.

But as with the barely detectable continental drift, there is now some evidence of movement in the same-sex marriage controversy. Before last fall, only Massachusetts and California permitted same-sex marriage. Now Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine are on the list. And the legislatures of New York, New Jersey, and New Hampshire are considering their own bills. But that movement may not be fast enough to make 2010 a reasonable time for same-sex marriage advocates to mount their next campaign.