In mid-May Democrats were finally riding high again. Their contentious primary appeared to be drawing to a close, they had routed Republicans for a third time in a Congressional special election and Americans were looking to them to address a failed war and a failing economy. Then on May 15 the California Supreme Court voted four to three to legalize same-sex marriages. As if on cue, gays and lesbians took to the streets of The Castro, Mayor Gavin Newsom vowed to turn San Francisco’s City Hall into a hot pink wedding chapel and right-wing demagogues announced that they would place a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on California’s fall ballot. Suddenly, conservatives like William Kristol were crowing about how resentment over “judicial activism” would help deliver John McCain the White House, and Democrats were seeing shades of 2004–when anti-gay marriage initiatives supposedly contributed to John Kerry’s defeat.
But in fact, California’s marital fireworks represent a more comforting reality for Democrats–the beginning of the end of the culture war. Nowhere is this sea change more evident than in the Golden State, where gay marriage has become a thoroughly mainstream proposition. In 2005 and 2007 the California State Legislature passed bills granting gays and lesbians the right to marry; on both occasions, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bills. But by directly expressing their support for gay marriage through the democratic process, the State Legislature undercut the right-wing claim that gay marriage is something “activist judges” foist onto an unwilling public. Indeed, the majority on the state’s Supreme Court, comprising three Republicans and one Democrat, weren’t “legislating from the bench”; they were reaffirming legislative will. And despite his vetoes, Schwarzenegger has said that he respects the court’s opinion and opposes an amendment to the California Constitution, something he calls “a waste of time.”
None of this will deter conservatives from pouring money, ground troops and vitriol into their campaign to get a marriage amendment passed, and they may well succeed this fall. But even that short-term victory won’t change two fundamentals: in the presidential race, California will go to the Democratic candidate, and the idea of gay marriage–endorsed by the State Legislature, accepted by the Republican governor and supported by growing numbers of gay-friendly voters–has become for Californians as banal as a Hollywood divorce.
Indeed, for all the hoopla, the number of new rights California’s gay couples picked up from the decision was this: zero. That’s because California already had a same-sex domestic partnership statute on the books. Passed by the legislature in 1999 and expanded on several occasions to include more rights, California’s domestic partnership laws are the most comprehensive in the nation, granting every right of coupledom a state can give absent federally recognized marriage. All the court did was give queers the m-word. This decision may have legal repercussions down the line, but in terms of actual economic and legal rights like access to spousal health insurance, hospital visitation and inheritance, Californians had already arrived at the conclusion that these should be available to all regardless of sexual orientation. To be sure, the symbol of marriage may matter a lot to some, mainly marriage-minded gays and Christian conservatives, but few voters are willing to hang a national election on it. According to a May Gallup poll, just 16 percent of Americans think that a presidential candidate must share their view on gay marriage.