The New Year typically brings with it a bushel of new state laws, and 2008 is no exception. Drivers in Washington State, for example, may now be fined for text messaging while driving a vehicle. Californians may no longer fire a BB gun in a "grossly negligent manner". From Hawaii, a state that still bristles when U.S. citizens arrive expecting to clear customs, comes word that the government will "[a]ppoint an aha kiole advisory committee to prepare recommendations in the creation of the aha moku council for indigenous resource management practices". I have no idea what this means. Finally, the ever-thoughtful Texas legislature has adopted a requirement that patrons of topless clubs pay the state a five dollar entrance fee (referred to by local wags as a "pole tax") to help offset funding for programs dealing with sexual assault prevention. The nudie bars are appealing…er, going to court to challenge the law.
And in a measure passed with so little national fanfare that I knew nothing about it until yesterday, New Hampshire has now become the latest state to enact domestic partnership laws for gay and lesbian couples. To anyone whose picture of northern New England is fixed in the 1960 or 1970s, this likely comes as quite a shock. New Hampshire was, at one time, a land of rock ribbed Republican politicians and attitudes as narrow as the small country roads between covered bridges. The Granite State's leading—really, only significant—newspaper was, and still is, the Union-Leader, a much derided daily famous for splashing its rabidly right-wing editorials on Page 1.
But just as Vermont was transformed by the arrival of thousands of New Yorkers over the past thirty years, New Hampshire's population has been swelled by carloads of Bostonians, many of whom are tax refugees living just across the state line from Massachusetts. Between the newcomers and the plentiful libertarians who gave the state its license plate slogan ("Life Free or Die"), New Hampshire is now just another subdivision of the politically moderate northeast. In 2004, New Hampshirites supported John Kerry for president and two years later gave the Democrats control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since presidents wore beards.
In any case, my point here is not to talk about New Hampshire. We'll be doing plenty of that in the next couple of weeks as the Granite State gears up for its primary election. Rather, I think it is worth observing just how unremarkable we all found this latest news out of Concord. Can it only be eight years ago that so much controversy and anger was generated when Vermont because the first American state to permit civil unions? And here we are less than a decade later with eight states protecting domestic partners (and one—Oregon—poised to do so as soon as some idiot Bush-appointed federal judge is overruled) and Massachusetts actually sanctioning gay and lesbian marriage.
This is obviously far from sufficient. There remains an unmistakable "separate but equal" aura around civil union laws that still prohibit committed couples from enjoying a legally recognized marriage. Moreover, as a columnist points out in the Boston Globe, federal law retains its terrible prejudices, meaning not only that New Hampshire unions will not be honored by Tennessee and Texas, but also that many of the benefits taken for granted by married couples (e.g., joint filing of federal tax returns) are still denied to their civilly united gay and lesbian counterparts. With one national political party playing to its bitterly conservative base and the other afraid of its own shadow, it appears unlikely that Congress will improve this situation any time soon.
Still, the new year should be a time for optimism, even when presided over by the worst administration in U.S. history. The pace of equality is at once painfully slow and astonishingly quick. It has not even been forty years since the Stonewall Rebellion took place in New York City; today only the most recalcitrant southern police chief would even consider ordering a raid on a gay night club. It was just a little over twenty years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ignored its own precedents on privacy and upheld the anti-sodomy laws of at least a dozen states; that ruling was finally overturned in 2003. In just a few decades, gays and lesbians have risen above pariah status to become an important political, economic, and social force in the United States, something that seemed unthinkable as recently as the early Clinton years (although it remains on the books, Clinton's don't ask, don't tell military policy feels more and more like an anachronism, doesn't it?).
Optimism must be tempered, of course. Savage gay bashing still occurs, the Defense of Marriage Act prevails at the federal level, and active discrimination receives the official blessing of far too many states and politicians. Millions of followers of that most gentle of saviors cherry pick their biblical prohibitions, damning, rather than loving, their gay and lesbian neighbors. As much progress as we have made as a country, the possibility of backlash always looms against an otherwise sunny horizon.
But for today, I will choose to believe that we are on an irreversible course of progress. Some legal recognition of gay and lesbian—that is, human—rights has come to the once predictably conservative precincts of northern New England. Young people, even in Dixie, increasingly break with their parents on issues of sexual preference and social progress. To the college senior, all this progress has taken the course of an entire lifetime. To me, it has occurred in the blink of an aging eye.
The road is long and disappointments no doubt await. They once said that as Maine goes, so goes the nation. Maine passed their domestic partnership law in 2004. Let's hope they're right.