Supporters of same-sex marriage appear to have scored narrow victories in the four U.S. states where the issue was on the ballot Tuesday, reflecting a change in public views on marriage equality for gay couples that pollsters have been tracking for more than a year.
The victories in Maine and Maryland and a leading but still-too-close-to-call vote in Washington would bring to nine the number of U.S. states allowing same-sex couples to wed. But gay rights advocates hailed the electoral sweep as a critical turning point after 32 straight defeats in states that had previously put the right of gays to marry up for a public vote.
In addition to the three states asking voters whether they approved of laws recognizing a right of same-sex marriage, voters in Minnesota were asked to decide whether the state constitution should be amended to ban marriage other than between a man and a woman. The proposed ban failed by a vote of 51% opposed to 48% in favor.
"This landmark victory is yet another example of the national momentum toward treating all families fairly," Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said after the Minnesota measure was defeated, the only initiative on U.S. ballots Tuesday that would have outlawed same-sex marriage.
"Our campaign to win marriage nationwide is ascendant, and this year of transformation has put us in place for an even bigger year of victories in 2013," cheered Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a national grass-roots organization that has made strides in dispelling opponents' claims that gay marriage is harmful to children.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage that opposes recognizing a right for gays to marry, blamed the outcomes at the ballot box on being outspent by gay rights advocacy groups. He vowed to "remain faithful to our mission and committed to the cause of preserving marriage as God designed it."
Tuesday's election successes for the gay rights movement may provide momentum for campaigns and legal battles under way in other U.S. states as well as Europe, Africa and Asia. California legalized gay marriage following a state Supreme Court ruling in May 2008, but opponents pushed a constitutional amendment banning it five months later, a reversal now being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Much of the Western world already recognizes a right for gays to marry, and the supportive votes in the four states on Tuesday suggest American views are trending toward acceptance. Canada, Scandinavia, Western Europe, South Africa and Argentina are among the countries and regions where same-sex couples can legally wed.
On Wednesday, French President Francois Hollande's Cabinet approved draft legislation that would allow "marriage for all," making good on a campaign pledge to recognize the right of homosexuals to marry and adopt children. The bill faces some strengthened opposition when it comes up for debate in parliament in January, but analysts saw the resistance as more a political battle between urban and rural French constituencies than a retrenchment of public attitudes on gay rights.
Same-sex marriage also scored a victory in Spain on Tuesday when the nation's highest court rejected an appeal of the 2005 gay marriage law. The conservative Popular Party brought the challenge, arguing that the Spanish Constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman. More than 22,000 same-sex marriages have been celebrated in predominantly Roman Catholic Spain since it became the third country, following the Netherlands and Belgium, to recognize the right of gays to marry.
Even in conservative-governed Britain, gay marriage advocates are gaining ground. Prime Minister David Cameron's government has promised to introduce a bill that would convey marriage rights to same-sex couples. Britain already recognizes "civil partnerships," which bestow the same rights and privileges as heterosexual marriage.
Gay marriage remains unpopular and illegal in much of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, and major powers like Russia, China and Japan have yet to address whether to make it legal. But shifts in the law and public sentiments emanate even from some of the most conservative corners of the globe.
On Monday, the southeast African state of Malawi suspended a law criminalizing same-sex relationships and ordered police to cease arresting and prosecuting alleged offenders, the BBC reported.
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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles. Henry Chu in London, Devorah Lauter in Paris and Lauren Frayer in Madrid contributed to this report.
Map: The state of gay and lesbian rights in the world. Credit: International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Assn.