Just days after the election, Durham attorney Sharon Thompson was already experiencing fallout on gay marriage. "My e-mail lists are saying the Democrats lost because gay people pushed gay marriage in Massachusetts," says Thompson, a former state legislator and gay rights activist. "We're already blaming ourselves."
But Thompson and other gay rights leaders in the Triangle say the issue was less important than the mainstream media made it out to be. "I think people are grasping for reasons," Thompson says. "But as [Massachusetts Congressman] Barney Frank said when he was in town, people think they are supposed to be more discriminatory than they are. They might say they're against gay marriage, but what do they really think of the gay mom next door?"
National polls show a majority of Americans support civil unions or some form of recognition for gay couples. A recent statewide survey showed the economy and homeland security were more important to voters in the U.S. Senate election than "social issues" (go to www.elon.edu for poll results).
On Nov. 2, Equality N.C., a statewide gay-rights advocacy group, saw 34 of its 36 endorsed candidates win. Perhaps most significantly, voters backed Julia Boseman of New Hanover, the first lesbian to win a seat in the General Assembly. She defeated Woody White, the GOP's choice to fill Patrick Ballantine's senate seat, by a slim margin. (White's attempts to make Boseman's sexuality an issue lost him the endorsement of the Wilmington Star-News, which ended up making no choice in that race.)
"We think there is actually some good news in the election, at least at the state level," says Ian Palmquist, executive director for programs at Equality N.C. "Going forward, we do expect the extreme right wing of the Republican Party to try and introduce a constitutional amendment [defining marriage as between a man and a woman], and we will be devoting a lot of energy to making sure that doesn't go anywhere."
Other issues on the agenda include adding sexual orientation and gender identity to laws preventing discrimination in state employment, expanding hate crimes legislation, and overturning the state's sodomy law.
Despite the fact that 11 states passed anti-gay marriage amendments, "I think in the long run we're going to win," Palmquist says. "States that ran really strong campaigns that put gay and lesbian families out there--a face on who will be hurt--will be able to shift public opinion."
Thompson isn't quite so optimistic about winning legal fights in the current climate. She notes that voters just elected an ultra-conservative, Paul Newby, to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
"My emphasis is going to be on protecting my clients' rights with existing tools--contracts, wills, parenting documents," Thompson says. "There are things we can do individually. We need to redirect resources and energy to taking care of ourselves."