- Associated Press - Thursday, November 25, 2010

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 that extended anti-discrimination protections to gays as related to employment, housing and public education. The vote was so close that it took three weeks to determine both 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 foundered in the Democrat-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.

Mr. 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 steppingstone for a lot of other rights that followed,” said Sara Benson, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.

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