Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) came out in support for gay marriage on Thursday, joining fifty other senators in a recent and rapid upsurge in senatorial support for same-sex relationships. Nelson’s position as the 51st senator to support marriage equality is a milestone for gay rights activists — this will be the first time ever in history that same-sex marriage has majority support in the Senate.
However, despite this achievement, Nelson’s support has not particularly sent out political and media shock waves due to its inevitability. Even before these past two rapid-fire weeks in which 11 senators — 10 Democrats, 1 Republican — have cried out their solidarity, gay marriage already had a good support base in the chamber, especially within the Democratic arena.
Before Vice President Joe Biden's abrupt announcement of support for gay marriage, more than half of Democratic senators had already publicly expressed the same sentiment. Nearly two dozen Democrat senators back in early 2012 had already campaigned for marriage equality to be added to the Democratic Party’s platform.
The recent onslaught of Democratic senatorial solidarity is not necessarily radical — they are mere clarifications for a stance that they most likely have supported, but can simply now publicly state due to a general shift in national opinion. Analysts say that during 2011, it became "possible to argue that support for same-sex marriage had become the majority position," making recent years a better time politically for senators to hop on the bandwagon.
Of all the Democrat senators, only six have not endorsed marriage equality to date. While there may be true ideological reasons behind these six senators' apprehension to follow along with their political party's stance, pundits say that these six Democrats may be keeping silent simply because it is not a majority position amongst their own state constituents.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), one of the six, also happens to represent one of the most conservative states within the Democrat spectrum. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, North Dakota has the lowest percentage of people identifying as LGBT in the nation. And in 2004, the gay-lacking state approved of a ban on same-sex marriage.
Even if Heitkamp does support same-sex relationships, to publicly declare so could potentially lead to a major loss in constituent support. To balance her affiliated political party’s stance along with the opinion of her constituents, Heitkamp has neither issued a vocal approval or rejection of same-sex marriages — she simply argues that it should be a state issue and generally sidesteps from taking a stance altogether.
Two Republicans — Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) have also come out with support. Portman’s solidarity created more of an impact and media presence than Nelson’s and other Democrats’ debut due to the reasons behind the Republican senator’s stance change — his own son came out to him as a gay man.
While the Democrat senators' newfound zeal is encouraging and comforting, it is less groundbreaking and more along the lines of capitulation. Gay couples and activists will find a cause for true celebration only if more red-blooded members of the chamber follow Portman's change of heart or if the Supreme Court rules favorably with the LGBT community in the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 cases.