Leland Traiman, who runs a sperm bank in California, worries about his lesbian clients in more conservative parts of the country when he hears fellow gay rights activists talk about winning the right to wed.
With 34 states lacking any legal recognition of same-sex relationships, Traiman wonders if all the emphasis on matrimony is misplaced.
"When I speak to women from Florida or Wisconsin or Minnesota, they are like, 'I don't care what it's called, I just want to be able to visit my wife in the hospital and cover my children with my health insurance,'" said Traiman, who helped pass the nation's first domestic partnership law a quarter-century ago in Berkeley.
In the weeks since Maine voters handed the gay marriage movement its 27th electoral defeat in five years, other activists have voiced similar qualms about making marriage their main goal. Gay rights leaders have insisted that anything less than full marriage equality is unacceptable, but some are asking whether the uncompromising strategy has forestalled interim steps that could improve the lives of gay men, lesbians and their families.
"They think the best way to achieve their goal of marriage with all the rights and benefits of marriage is a complete frontal assault, and any other strategy is a betrayal of their goal," Traiman said.
Activists like Traiman point to the success of efforts to extend spousal rights and other civil rights protections to same-sex couples, even as the passage of gay marriage bans grab headlines.
On the same day that Maine rejected a gay marriage law approved by its Legislature, for example, voters in Washington state approved a law giving same-sex couples or straight older couples who register as domestic partners all the state rights and responsibilities of marriage. Washington's so-called "everything but marriage" law passed by the same margin as Maine's gay marriage rebuff, 53 percent to 48 percent.
And earlier this year, Nevada lawmakers overrode a veto by Gov. Jim Gibbons to enact a domestic partnership law extending marriage rights to couples, gay or straight, who "have chosen to share one another's lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring." Colorado's legislature and governor also adopted a "reciprocal beneficiaries" law providing some legal benefits for all unmarried couples.
Colorado and Nevada are among the 29 states with constitutional prohibitions against gay marriages.
The success of partner measures in those states suggests that there's room for gay couples to secure spousal protections even if they can't marry, said William Dobbs, a veteran activist in New York.
"It's a huge tactical mistake to be arguing that nothing less than marriage will do," Dobbs said. "One size does not fit all.
"There is a real need among some folks to put their lives together, to have joint credit cards, a house and children," he said. "We need a set of actions for that, but the marriage fight is toxic to other types of reforms."
Since 2004, $78 million has been spent on fighting efforts to outlaw same-sex marriage, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Out of 28 elections, gay marriage supporters have won only one: when Arizona voters rejected a 2006 measure that would have outlawed domestic partnerships as well as same-sex marriages. Arizona subsequently approved a constitutional ban on gay marriages last year.
Dan Hawes, the head organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, agrees that it makes sense to seek even limited legal protections in states where gay people have none, but disagrees that fighting for marriage has detracted from that work.
"It's not that these fights are mutually exclusive of each other, so that's why we don't think it makes sense to negotiate against ourselves," Hawes said.
State Sen. Ed Murray, a gay Democrat who led the three-year push to introduce and expand Washington's domestic partnership laws, said he had little support from national organizations that thought he was settling for less than full equality. Murray says he still regards marriage as the ultimate goal, but has no regrets about taking an incremental approach.
"We knew we had families who needed immediate help and wanted to give relief to families who needed it while building support in the Legislature on the way to marriage," he said.
A recent member survey by Equality Federation, a network of state-based gay rights groups, showed that passing laws to reduce the bullying of gay students in school and adopting anti-discrimination measures that prevent gay people from losing their jobs or getting evicted are high on the agenda for next year.
"The reality is if people have to fear for keeping their jobs, they cannot stand up and advocate for marriage equality," the federation's executive director, Toni Broaddus, said. "Though we need the full range of rights we are fighting for to include marriage equality, that is not always the best place to start in North Carolina or Texas or many, many states."
Even if activists set their sights on a status short of marriage, there's no guarantee that would diffuse the organized opposition they have faced from religious and social conservatives.
This month, more than 150 Christian conservative leaders published a 4,700-word declaration, pledging to fight any legislative efforts to equate same-sex unions with traditional marriages. In theory, though, the Manhattan Declaration would not oppose extending legal protections to two people in a nonsexual relationship, such as two sisters or even a same-sex couple that abstained from sex, said Robert George, a Princeton law professor who serves as board chairman of the National Organization for Marriage.
"What you couldn't have is ... an explicit reference to partners in intimate relationships because 'intimate' is an euphemism for 'sexual,'" George said. "In that case, all a civil union scheme is a semantic substitute for marriage, or same-sex marriage by another name."