It arrived in somewhat muted fashion, tucked in the fine print of an election night. You might even have missed the results that flashed briefly on your television screen, or the commentators using words like “milestone” before moving on to the bigger news of the day. History doesn’t always reach out to shake us.
But history did arrive Tuesday, not once but again and again. Voters in three states – Maryland, Maine and Washington – approved laws legalizing same-sex marriage. A fourth state, Minnesota, rejected an amendment that would have added a same-sex marriage ban to the state constitution.
That’s four states nodding yes to equality, after 32 consecutive states said no.
So here’s what history looks like: Eight years ago, not one state allowed homosexuals to marry. Now, as of next year, 15 percent of Americans will live in such states.
North Carolina, of course, isn’t one of them. In May, we passed Amendment One, which recognized only marriages between a man and a woman. In doing so, we banned civil unions and endangered health insurance and other benefits for gays. Instead of being the first state to vote for same-sex marriage, we were the last to turn our backs on it.
There may be others, too, that follow our path. The ride to equality is often filled with dips and disappointments. That’s what gays felt in California in 2008, when voters rejected gay rights legislation that had been signed into law. That’s what gays felt in Maine three years ago, when voters rejected a marriage rights law their governor had recently signed.
But on Tuesday, the voters in Maine did something simple and profound. They changed their mind.
This is also what history looks like: In Wisconsin on Tuesday, Democrat Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay or lesbian person elected to the U.S. Senate. Baldwin’s sexuality, according to reports, was never really a campaign issue. Voters were worried about jobs and health care and the debt. The fact that Baldwin was gay was strikingly unremarkable.
And this is why North Carolina didn’t settle this year for a mere law banning same-sex marriage. Lawmakers, along with the constituents nudging them, saw that America is undergoing a pronounced shift on homosexuality. So they pushed for something more difficult to change – a constitutional amendment. But their legislative levee was and will be folly, because the water already is rising behind them. Take a look around you. Our schools have long had openly gay teachers. Our offices, too. We work with gays, laugh with them, celebrate their milestones – even marriage. It’s becoming so very ordinary, as it should be.
So it’s no wonder that when Tuesday’s milestones arrived, they were met with some hugs and cheers, but nothing terribly grand. It was victory, yes, but it also was an acknowledgement of where many people already are, each day.
That’s what history looks like sometimes – not only the marking of big moments, but the realization that they’re following the smaller ones. Is it over? Certainly not, and certainly not in North Carolina. We live in a country that, like many, takes its time granting rights to its minorities. But eventually it happens. Eventually, history arrives.