By Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel
Madison — In an election with voters focused more on their bank accounts than their bedrooms, history crept quietly forward for gays and lesbians in Wisconsin and beyond.
Tuesday night, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay U.S. senator in the nation’s history, Maine and Maryland became the first states to approve gay marriage by popular vote and Barack Obama won re-election after coming out in favor of gay marriage during the campaign. In Baldwin’s second congressional seat, an openly gay state lawmaker was picked to succeed it.
Such strides wouldn’t have seemed possible during the 1990s, the time when Baldwin’s opponent Tommy Thompson served as governor of Wisconsin.
“”I didn’t run to make history, I ran to make a difference,” Baldwin said in her victory speech.
But she did and so did state lawmaker Mark Pocan, an openly gay Madison Democrat who won election to fill Baldwin’s open congressional seat.
If gay rights advocates were big winners Tuesday, social conservatives were equally big losers. They also suffered setbacks when previously strong GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate lost races in both Missouri and Indiana following controversial comments about abortion and rape.
With a couple exceptions, neither Baldwin’s nor Pocan’s sexual orientation received much attention during their campaigns – not a single television ad raised the issue and none of the campaigns or major outside groups in the races focused on it either.
Katie Belanger, executive director of the gay rights group Fair Wisconsin, saw a fundamental shift in not only the election results but in the mild national reaction during to the campaign to the possibility of gay leaders and gay marriage — once considered existential threats to the nation’s values.
The dangers from the nation’s struggling economy, the federal debt, the wars in the Middle East and superstorm Sandy all drew much more attention.
“We elected the first out lesbian to the U.S. Senate yesterday and it wasn’t a big deal,” Belanger said. “It’s what people in Wisconsin are focusing on. There are so many other issues that are more important for both gay and straight people.”
This political change was punctuated by the referendums approved Tuesday by Maine and Maryland voters to allow gay marriage, making them the seventh and eighth states to do so and the first to make that decision outside of a courtroom. Minnesota voters also defeated a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage there.
“Obviously we were all very hopeful. We’d never won at the ballot box, so there was a lot of worry when you’ve never seen this happen before,” Belanger said.
Julaine Appling, head of the conservative values group Wisconsin Family Action, didn’t immediately return a phone message seeking comment.
Not everything has changed overnight, of course.
Wisconsin still has the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions that voters approved with 59% of the vote in 2006 and 29 other states have similar measures, according to the Associated Press. With the state Legislature still in the hands of Republicans, Belanger acknowledged that amendment seems secure for years to come in Wisconsin.
Instead, she said her group would look for gains in local communities like those already seen the past two years. Local governments have approved domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian employees, including Milwaukee County and Appleton last year and Racine, Manitowoc and Eau Claire this year.