N.Y. Senate Votes Down Gay Marriage—Time for Federal Action?

Another blow to the gay-rights movement today, as the New York State Senate voted down a gay marriage bill, 38–24. This, of course, comes on the heels of last month's defeat of a ballot measure in Maine and, stretching back further in time, the Prop 8's denial of gay marriage in California. In all, thirty-one states have now voted down gay marriage by referendum.

But it's the three latest state-level defeats -- Maine, California, and New York -- that have got me thinking: should the gay-rights movement be setting its sights on federal activism? Rather than pursuing piecemeal, state-level initiatives, which do not have a great track record, perhaps the movement, en masse, ought to focus on pressuring Congress and President Obama to take more decisive action.

I'm not the first to make this suggestion. The issue came to a head in October, when gay-rights activists organized—and argued over—their first large march in Washington since 2000. From a New York Times article:

In the vacuum left as AIDS became less of a threat, more of the movement's attention shifted toward action in state legislatures and city councils. Organizers of the march are now arguing for abandoning that strategy, saying it is too incremental and leaves important rights vulnerable to the whim of state legislatures and ballot initiatives.

"The endless pursuit of fractions of equality, state by state, county by county, locality by locality, is not enough," said Cleve Jones, a veteran organizer who has been involved in gay rights battles since the 1970s. "It is a failed strategy. Until we get federal action, every one of those local victories—as important as they are—every one is incomplete and impermanent."

With two defeats in two months, I can't deny that Jones is on to something: why not turn on the heat in Washington? I admittedly tend to favor an incremental approach to social movements, gay rights included, aiming for small gains that, collectively, snowball into larger societal shifts. And I still think that the recent, smaller gay-rights victories, in Salt Lake City and Washington state, do indeed matter. But there's no getting around the fact that the state-referendum strategy has now failed in more than half the country. And there are at least three good reasons gay-rights activists should consider shifting their efforts to the national level:

The makeup of Congress, particularly the 60 Democrats in Senate, is incredibly favorable. And the 111th Congress already showed itself friendly to gay rights when, in October, it expanded the federal definition of hate crimes to include those committed because of sexual orientation. Add Obama to the mix and, as one gay-rights activist put it in the Times, "There has never been a better time than now. What are you waiting for?"

Federal activism could be galvanizing for the movement. Just look at how the pro-choice movement has rallied against the Stupak amendment. Seemingly overnight it went from a nearly sleepy movement to a force to be reckoned with. Suddenly, the abortion issue is everywhere in the news and activists are swarming the Hill. It's not that there was no local activity to mobilize around. In fact, state legislatures considered 300 abortion-related pieces of legislation this year alone. But it took a high-exposure piece of federal legislation to kick the movement into gear.

Pooled financial resources are powerful. Last month the National Institute on Money in State Politics released a study finding that the gay-rights movement raised a collective $101.1 million around same-sex partnership issues in 2008. That was the fundraising total for campaigns in just four states: California, Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas. Imagine what kind of fundraising machine a federal campaign, drawing on resources from all 50 states, would have behind it.