BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – Thirty years ago, a vote like the one just decided in this university town wouldn't have happened; gay-rights activism hadn't taken root across most of America. Thirty years hence, such votes may seem a historical curiosity in a time of equality for gays.
Right now, though, the gay rights movement is at a tipping point, as epitomized by Bowling Green's divisive referendum on extending anti-discrimination protections to gays. The vote was so close that it took three extra weeks to determine whether the two measures passed.
Nationally, gay-rights supporters and their conservative opponents are trading victories and setbacks, and the public is deeply divided on same-sex marriage. Could the push for full equality be stalled or reversed? Probably not, if public opinion evolves at its current pace.
"All you have to do is look at the demographics and you can see this is as inevitable as anything," said Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor who has studied the civil rights and gay rights movements.
Surveys repeatedly find that young adults, far more so than their elders, support the rights of gays to marry and serve openly in the military. A Gallup poll earlier this year showed, for the first time, a majority of Americans saying same-sex relations were morally acceptable. Increasing numbers of Americans personally know gays and lesbians, and positive portrayals of them abound on TV and in films.
"The more gay-friendly an environment you create, the more people come out as gay," Klarman said. "When people know other people are gay — family, co-workers — they find it harder and harder to dislike them and deny them equal rights."
Social conservatives see those trends as clearly as liberals do, though they may hope for a different outcome.
"There is a sense of inevitability of moral standards diminishing that is frustrating for many," said the Rev. Scott Estep, pastor of a popular Bowling Green church, Dayspring Assembly of God.
The church of 700-plus members, on the Dixie Highway north of town where roadside businesses give way to open farmland, is attended by leading opponents of the two ordinances, though the pastor himself made no formal endorsement of either side.
"I'm concerned about the kind of environment my children will grow up in," said Estep, who considers homosexual behavior one sin among many. He suggested, not despairingly, that his son and daughter "will be faced with a lot more decisions and diversity than I did."
Both sides in the Bowling Green campaign recognized that they were part of a bigger picture — evidenced by the involvement of national gay-rights organizers whose savvy, in the end, helped the ordinances win approval after a bitter 16-month debate.
"We became a small battleground in a larger war," said John Zanfardino, the city councilor who introduced the ordinances in 2009, miscalculating that their enactment would be swift and smooth.
The battleground is a northwest Ohio town of 30,000 residents, plus 18,000 university students. Its county was carried by George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election and by Barack Obama in 2008.
Mayor John Quinn is already talking about the need to heal the wounds opened by the referendum campaign.
"Some of it wasn't as pretty as I'd have liked," he said. "I don't want to use the word hate, but some people have very strong anti-gay feelings."
To local conservatives managing the No campaign, the ordinances were an unneeded gesture of political correctness in a community where, in their view, blatant discrimination hadn't been a problem. They said the ultimate goal was to undermine Ohio's 2004 ban on same-sex marriage — part of surge of similar bans in other states — as a step toward legalizing gay marriage nationwide.
"It's about trying to impose on our community a political agenda," said real estate agent Ed Sitter, who was active in the No campaign. "The militant homosexuals want their lifestyle elevated to the same level as the civil rights movement."
Though he and his allies resented the role of outside organizers on the Yes side, Sitter views their town-by-town strategy as formidable.
"They're looking 15-20 years ahead," he said. "They're more committed to their cause than we are."
Whatever the future portends, recent months have been sobering for gay-right activists. Key gay-rights bills floundered in the Democratic-led Congress and will have less chance when the GOP takes control of the House. Three Iowa Supreme Court justices were ousted by voters because they ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. A spate of suicides by gay teens underscored the pervasiveness and cruelty of anti-gay bullying.
Yet longer term, many trends seem to promise advancement of the gay-rights cause.
Obama has appointed more openly gay officials than any other president — an estimated 150 so far. An ever-growing number of actors and singers remain popular after coming out of the closet; hit TV shows such as "Glee" and the Emmy-winning "Modern Family" portray gays prominently and empathetically. Openly gay politicians are taking office in ever-wider swaths of America — Nov. 2 victories included the mayoral election in Lexington, Ky., and a legislative seat in North Carolina.
In December, the Senate is expected to vote on whether to allow gays to serve openly in the military — a goal supported by several top Pentagon officials and a majority of the public. Leaked portions of an upcoming Pentagon report suggest most service members foresee no major problems if "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed.
There's a widely held belief that repeal could prove to be a turning point for gay rights comparable to the racial integration of the military after World War II.
"That was a stepping stone for a lot of other rights that followed," said Sara Benson, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.
The ultimate gay-rights goal is national recognition of same-sex marriage, which now is legal in five states and the subject of several pending lawsuits filed by gay-rights groups that could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gay-rights activists hope to add Maryland, Rhode Island and possibly New York to the ranks of states allowing same-sex marriage. But Brian Brown, president of the conservative National Organization for Marriage, believes Republican legislative gains in New Hampshire and Iowa might lead to scrapping same-sex marriage there.
"We won what we needed to win and we are in a position to go on offense," Brown said in an election post-mortem.
Several recent national polls show support for same-sex marriage at a record high — nearing or topping 50 percent overall while gaining backing even among older people and Republicans.
Evan Wolfson, a gay-rights lawyer who heads the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, said that even in an election where the Republicans triumphed, few GOP leaders seem eager to speak out against gay rights.
"They realize this is not where history is going," Wolfson said.
Klarman, the Harvard law professor, says the same-sex marriage question could reach the Supreme Court in the next few years and foresees the possibility that the principal swing justice — Anthony Kennedy — could write a majority opinion recognizing gays' marriage rights.
"If you think the change is inevitable, why wouldn't you want to be the author of the great opinion of our times advancing social justice?" Klarman asked. Yet he doesn't see the path ahead as tranquil.
"Evangelical Christians — you can tell them it's inevitable and some of them might agree," he said. "But that doesn't mean they will stop fighting."
In Bowling Green, the battle lines for the referendum were drawn in August 2009, when the city council heard earnest testimony, pro and con, from dozens of citizens, and then approved the two ordinances by votes of 7-0 and 6-1.
The measures add sexual orientation and gender identity as categories covered by local anti-discrimination laws — one deals with housing, the other with access to public facilities and employment by businesses and schools.
Among those urging the council to reject the measures was Gary Thompson, a landlord and owner of a carpet-cleaning firm who later became a major financial backer of the No campaign.
"You can legislate more and more, but you can't force people to believe in something they don't agree with," he said.
Other opponents said the ordinances were too vague. Several, while insisting they didn't endorse discrimination, said landlords and business owners should be free to turn down gays or transsexuals seeking jobs or rental units.
By the end of the council hearing, Zanfardino — the sort of 59-year-old who is still taking guitar lessons — had revised his upbeat outlook.
"I realized I was wrong about this being a piece of cake and understood how much intolerance there was in this town," he recalled during a conversation at Grounds for Thought, a Main Street coffee shop/bookstore adopted by Bowling Green liberals as their hangout of choice.
Within weeks after the council passed the ordinances, conservative opponents collected enough signatures to challenge them — and on Nov. 2 voters had the final say.
The initial tally revealed an almost 50-50 split: The housing measure was approved by 24 votes out of more than 8,100 ballots cast while the other measure lost by 116. Over the next three weeks, the election board reviewed hundreds of provisional ballots — mostly cast by Bowling Green State University students — and on Monday announced the final result: Both measures had won approval.
David Miller, for 30 years the editor of the local newspaper, the Sentinel-Tribune, said the ordinances generated the largest outpouring of letters to the editor in the paper's history, 119 published letters in all.
"It was a good fight on both sides," Miller said.
However, each campaign came away aggrieved.
The No side believes it won a majority of votes from longtime residents and lost only because of their rivals' success in registering university students with no long-term stake in the town's future.
No campaign spokeswoman Crystal Thompson said the Yes side at times was "very belligerent" and she complained that some businesses which put up "No" placards were threatened with boycotts.
The Yes side was outraged at dire warnings emerging from the No camp in speeches and fliers — that passing the ordinances might fuel the spread of AIDS or enable men dressed as women to make menacing forays into women's restrooms on the premise that they were transgender. Problems related to bathrooms have been negligible in the 13 states and scores of municipalities which have such anti-discrimination laws, gay-rights activists say.
Yes campaign leader Jane Rosser, who oversees community-service programs at Bowling Green State, said it was sobering that her side barely prevailed despite a huge advantage in money and volunteers. "If change is going to happen, it has to happen community by community, face to face," she said.
Charlie Applebaum, a professor emeritus of math, said the opposition to gay-rights measures reminded him of the animosity toward advances by blacks and women in past decades.
"I know people on the other side — people I've known for years," he said. "I was surprised that they were on that side."
Kay Chapman, 53, who has lived openly in the town with her lesbian partner for many years, said, "It hurts that your neighbors and possibly even some of your friends don't think you deserve the same rights that they have."
High school chemistry teacher Ken Diamond also was dismayed by the closeness of the vote, but added of gay-rights opponents: "History will prove them wrong. It's generational. For younger people it's a no-brainer."
Phil Burress, a Cincinnati-based conservative leader who backed the No campaign, challenged the premise of inevitability.
"It's normal that young people tend to be liberal," he said. "When they marry and start having children, they change."
Sean Martin, 26, a religiously devout lawyer working pro bono for the No campaign, said he and his colleagues weren't preoccupied with how history would judge them.
"We believe in being right on these issues now," he said.
For many voters, a decision on the ordinances came easily. Others wrestled with nuances.
The Rev. Michael Dandurand, who ministers to Roman Catholic students as pastor of St. Thomas More University Parish, said many students asked for guidance. Bottom line from the diocese: Discrimination is wrong, but the ordinances were "cause for concern" because they gave sexual orientation equal status with religion.
Dandurand challenges his youthful parishioners to respect Catholic teaching, yet overall, he says, "the horse is out of the barn" in a popular culture that embraces gay rights and nonmarital sex.
"I don't want to be a Pollyanna," he said. "It will be harder to live one's Christian values in our culture."
The referendum also posed challenges for Estep, the Dayspring pastor, who disappointed some members of his church by declining to publicly endorse the No campaign.
"There's been quite a quandary for many of us — not wanting to alienate or condemn anyone, but not wanting to compromise our convictions," he said in an interview in his office as the nearby lobby buzzed with youths preparing for a retreat.
That evening, Estep accepted the Yes campaign's invitation to attend a press event, and offered a prayer of reconciliation in hopes Bowling Green' rifts could be healed.
"I am an eternal optimist," he said. "I believe it is possible to turn friction into traction."