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Gay Marriage 101

Maine voters will decide on November 3 whether to repeal a law, signed by the governor in May, that legalized gay marriage. A Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday shows that voters are split evenly on the issue: 48 percent of respondents said they'll vote to keep the law ("No On 1"), while another 48 percent said they'll vote to nix it ("Yes On 1").

Maine's gay marriage opponents recruited Frank Schubert, the p.r. strategist behind last year's Proposition 8 advertisements in California, to employ his signature tricks--including telling voters that, if the law remains as it is, gay marriage will be taught to schoolchildren. The law includes no language about altering school curricula, and last week, Maine's attorney general confirmed that her "analysis of the issue reveals no impact" on what students are taught. But Yes On 1 is still pressing the point--and hard. Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which is backing the Yes On 1 campaign, told me there's plenty of evidence that the law will allow gay marriage to infiltrate classrooms. "We don't have to guess or create hypotheticals. We already know," Brown insisted. "Let's not argue about the fact that this is what same-sex marriage proponents want."

Evidence aside, however, there's a nagging question about Yes On 1's chief grievance: What exactly does it mean to "teach gay marriage"?

A recent Yes On 1 ad shows a nervous-looking school counselor discussing the children's book Who's In A Family?, which includes references to families with LGBT members and is part of a much-contested anti-bullying curriculum in Alameda County, California. "Vote Yes On Question 1 to prevent homosexual marriage from being pushed on Maine students," the counselor pleads. Put simply, the campaign's logic is that if gay marriage is legal--as it was for a time in California--and this book exists, then surely it and others like it will end up in classrooms as tools of the "homosexual agenda." Another Yes On 1 spot includes a sound bite from a 2004 NPR interview with a Massachusetts teacher who said she would discuss gay marriage with students because, "This is legal now. If someone wants to challenge me, I say give me a break." I pointed out to Brian Brown that perhaps not all educators would change their lesson plans in direct response to the new marriage law. "Teachers will say exactly as this teacher has done in Massachusetts," Brown argued, whether they're teaching high-school students in family-life classes or kindergartners still trying to grasp their ABCs.

"It's simple: Any area that the state defines as a civil right, if it's brought up in schools, why would you not talk about it?" Brown asked. But isn't there a difference between teaching students what state laws say are legal and presenting those legal activities as things students should or shouldn't pursue in life? (After all, vegetarianism is legal, so teachers might accurately say, "Vegetarianism means not eating meat, and there are vegetarians in Maine"--but that doesn't mean they'll necessarily tell students they should be vegetarians or agree with their views on beef.) "I don't think that parents want their kids as young as kindergarten being taught about same-sex marriage, period, whether the teacher thinks it's appropriate or not," Brown said.

In other words, in the minds of Yes On 1 supporters, teaching gay marriage can mean merely saying that it exists, although, inevitably, gay-loving teachers will go further and tell children it's a good thing. And the Maine law does nothing to prevent this. "I'd like to see that in writing, guys. Show it to me that it's not going to be taught in schools," Marc Mutty, chair of Yes On 1, said this week in a local news segment. "I dare you to guarantee me that this subject will not come up in schools. I don't think they [No On 1] can do that."

I'm fine with the law as it is. But I dare Mutty to guarantee Maine voters that, if the legislation were amended to forbid discussions of gay marriage in classrooms, Yes On 1 would end its this-will-harm-children crusade. I don't think he can.