Steve Chapman

Opponents of same-sex marriage waxed triumphant recently when voters in Maine rejected a measure allowing gays to wed. Maggie Gallagher, head of the National Organization for Marriage, crowed, "This victory in Maine interrupts the cultural narrative that was being manufactured, that somehow American opinion is shifting on the gay marriage issue."

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But she and her allies are the political equivalent of a Minnesota Vikings fan, gazing upon Brett Favre's middle-aged gridiron wizardry. They had better enjoy it now, because it's not going to last.

What got overlooked on Election Day was the victory for gay rights on the other coast, in Washington state -- where the electorate extended to homosexual couples all the privileges and responsibilities enjoyed by heterosexual couples. That measure, known as "everything but marriage," passed with 52 percent of the vote.

Why did it succeed while the initiative in Maine failed? Simple: Washington calls this new option "domestic partnership" rather than "marriage."

As it turns out, it's not the idea of treating gay couples equally that bothers most Americans. It's the name of the legal arrangement. Call same-sex marriage by another term -- civil union, domestic partnership, everything-but-marriage, Qualcomm Stadium, Death Cab for Cutie -- and they're fine with it.

Traditionalists take heart that same-sex marriage has lost every time it's been on the ballot, and that a decisive majority of the public rejects it. The latest poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds 53 percent of Americans are against, with 39 percent in favor.

But anyone who denies that "American opinion is shifting" inhabits a fool's paradise, whose walls are sagging noticeably. Opposition to gay marriage is shrinking. In 1996, 65 percent took a negative view. Since then, support has fallen by about one percentage point a year. Put another way, one out of every eight Americans has gone from opposing the concept to endorsing it.

Time is on the side of gay marriage. The heaviest opposition comes from people over 65. Among those under 30, by contrast, supporters predominate -- and by a hefty 58-to-37 percent margin. Ask any actuary where this disparity will lead.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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