Gay is closer to ordinary than ever before in America after unprecedented voter support for same-sex marriage was shown in four states. But beyond Maine, Minnesota, Maryland and Washington, Election Day 2012 produced other milestones and will likely be remembered as the day gay rights came fully out of the closet to take their place among other facets of everyday public life in mainstream America.
By winning at the polls in those four states, gay-rights supporters ended an unbroken losing streak that had dated to 1998, when Hawaii voters overwhelmingly voted to amend their constitution to let lawmakers ban gay marriage. State legislatures, notably New York’s last year, have legalized gay marriage, but never before had voters endorsed it at the ballot box.
Public opinion on gay marriage, as on most things political in today’s America, remains split. Numbers released this week by the Pew Center show that in the central Southern states, including Kentucky and Tennessee, barely a third of respondents favor gay marriage. But everywhere else voters are either more evenly divided or decidedly favorable.
But those numbers only hint at a broader momentum. Gay-rights supporters won other prizes as well. Across the U.S., gay candidates and those who are strongly supportive of gay rights won their races. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin was elected to the Senate in Wisconsin (GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s home state) and will become the nation’s first openly gay Senator when the new Congress forms. Meanwhile, the man who won the right to replace her in the House of Representatives is gay too, and he’ll join five others who are openly gay in that body, according to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which contributes to the campaigns of gay and gay-friendly candidates. When state legislatures across the country return for business, seven of those assemblies will welcome an openly gay member for the first time. “This is what a tipping point looks like,” wrote gay-rights scholar Nan Hunter of Georgetown University Law Center on her blog, Hunter of Justice. Equally jubilant was the nation’s largest gay-rights advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign, which was still headlining the news on its website as late as Friday: “Equality Landslide. Unprecedented mobility for equality.”
Opponents saw the results in no less urgent terms. “Evangelical Christians must see the 2012 election as a catastrophe for crucial moral concerns,” the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote on his influential blog the morning after the election. The votes in favor of gay marriage in Maine and the other three states should sound a call to action for Christian conservatives, he continued. “After 33 victories, last night brought multiple defeats … Clearly, we face a new moral landscape in America.” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, leader of the church’s opposition to gay marriage, said no vote would change the truth about marriage. “November 6 … was a disappointing day for marriage, as the effort to preserve the unique meaning of marriage in the law lost by only a narrow margin in four states, even though vastly outspent by those who promote the redefinition of marriage,” Cordileone said in a statement released by the U.S. Conference of Bishops. “The meaning of marriage, though, cannot be redefined because it lies within our very nature. No matter what policy, law or judicial decision is put into place, marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman to each other and to any children born of their union. It is either this, or it is nothing at all.”
(MORE: Obama’s Gay-Marriage Conundrum)
Professor Michael Klarman of Harvard Law School, whose book From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage was published last month, tells TIME that the election’s results should be seen as a powerful indicator of where the country is headed. “Tuesday’s results demonstrate with clarity the sorts of changes that people kind of understood were happening but didn’t have sufficient direct confirmation of,” he says. He adds that at least on some level, the votes in favor of gay marriage shouldn’t be surprising, given that public-opinion polls have shown shrinking opposition to gay marriage nationwide and that some analysts, like Nate Silver of the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, have seen even in the string of losses on the issue growing support that would eventually turn into success at the ballot box.
Klarman continues, “But the fact that things actually played out as one might have predicted now disrupts the standard narrative that whenever people actually vote on gay marriage, they reject it. Now that’s no longer true — and in a big way. In all four states voting on the issue on Tuesday, the voters rejected the anti-gay-marriage position.”
So what’s next? Klarman says activists will be pushing more ballot measures and upping the pressure on legislatures to increase the number of states where marriage is legal to the double digits. Sooner than that, the long-simmering legal challenges in federal court that seek to end legal barriers to gay marriage will be considered by the Supreme Court. The Justices are expected to meet Nov. 20 to consider which, if any, of the six federal cases challenging gay-marriage bans they will hear. Those cases include lower-court decisions seeking to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturning California’s 2008 constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage in that state.
Most observers think the court will take one or more of the cases, and if that happens, Klarman says, it’s entirely possible that Tuesday’s results could be influential on the Justice most likely to be the swing vote on the issue. “It is possible that these results might influence how a judge like Justice Kennedy thinks about the issue, because we know his constitutional jurisprudence is not indifferent to the force of public opinion,” Klarman says.
Still, no one expects a Supreme Court ruling before next year. So for now, perhaps the biggest political impact of Tuesday’s results will be in the healing it represents for gay and lesbian voters who had been scarred by President Obama’s previous record on their civil rights.
That rift began four years ago, when gay-rights supporters were thunderstruck to see that in reliably blue California, the same voters Obama had pulled to the polls through a historic outreach had stayed in the booths long enough to check yes on Prop 8 — the amendment that halted gay marriage in the Golden State and eviscerated one of the most powerful gay-rights rulings ever issued by a state supreme court.
A string of setbacks for gay rights followed, culminating in a vote two years ago in Maine, where activists had been convinced the state’s independent-minded voters would strike down an amendment aimed at preventing gay marriage. They were soundly disappointed.
All along, Obama kept to the sidelines on gay marriage – even keeping quiet in June of last year when he was raising money in Manhattan at the same time state lawmakers were engaging in guerrilla warfare over whether to make gay marriage legal in New York.
But Obama began applying salve to those wounds in May, when he became the first major presidential candidate (not to mention sitting President) to voice support for gay marriage. On Tuesday, elated gay voters rewarded the Obama campaign by casting their ballots for him by a 3-to-1 margin. The bandages can now be removed.
Michael A. Lindenberger is a longtime contributor to TIME.com and currently a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University.