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Maryland voters made history Tuesday by becoming the first in the nation to approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box and delivering one of several election night victories for gay rights activists across the country.

What Question 6 saidEstablishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.Source: Maryland State Board of Elections

In recent years national polls have shown an electorate increasingly tolerant of same-sex marriage, but those changing attitudes had yet to be reflected in the voting booth — before Tuesday, measures to legalize same-sex marriage had appeared on ballots in 32 states since 1998, and each had failed.

But that all changed on Election Day, when marriage equality went a perfect 3 for 3 on ballots in Maine, Washington and Maryland, where 51.9 percent of voters supported same-sex marriage and 48.1 percent opposed.

Since Maryland’s polls closed earliest of the three, the Free State technically became the first in the nation to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote.

Polls in recent months had shown state voters were virtually split on whether to uphold the law or not, and the issue’s past electoral performance didn’t help inspire confidence in the gay community.

“It had never happened before,” said Theresia Warder of Chaptico, an organizer for Southern Maryland PFLAG, an aspiring chapter of the international group Parents, Friends & Families of Lesbians and Gays. “It had never gone to referendum and actually come out on the other side, so I think a lot of us went into [Tuesday] biting our fingernails.”

Gabrielle Atwell of Great Mills got so nervous Tuesday evening waiting alongside her girlfriend, Brandy Fender, to hear whether Question 6 had passed or not that she finally decided to just go to sleep.

“It was too much. I couldn’t because everything just seemed like it was going my way,” Atwell said. “We ended up waking up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I looked at my phone and I was like, ‘Brandy, we’re getting married!’”

Well, not for a little bit. The first day same-sex couples can get married in the state is Jan. 1, and Atwell is still waiting for Fender to pop the question. Asked recently whether the couple were engaged, Atwell answered “no” and gave Fender a look that countless partners have known all too well as singles.

Still, “it’s nice to have the option,” Fender said. Atwell struggled to define her emotions when she realized marriage was now a possibility for her. “It was a mix between joy and relief and just, I don’t know, happiness. I was so ecstatic,” she said. “It gave me a little bit of hope for humanity, that maybe we can step in the right direction and that maybe there won’t be so much negativity toward the LGBT community.”

“I don’t think we were confident. I think we were hopeful,” said Carmel Bender of Waldorf, who stayed up past midnight with her wife, Jennifer VanCory, to watch the results come in.

Married in Washington, D.C., last December, Bender and VanCory feared that if Question 6 failed, it could put at risk a 2010 ruling by Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) recognizing same-sex marriages performed out of the state.

“We just kissed each other and congratulated each other that it passed,” Bender said. “It was just a wonderful feeling.”

Veronica Christian and Danielle Smith feared the same as Bender and VanCory — the Waldorf couple, also married in D.C., stayed up Tuesday night with varying degrees of hope and dread.

“She was confident. I was very nervous,” Christian said. “We stayed up until they put a check by it so that we knew it had passed. We’re very excited, extremely excited. We did a happy dance [Wednesday] morning.”

“Over these past few weeks, Marylanders joined together to affirm that for a free and diverse people of many faiths — a people committed to religious freedom — the way forward is always found through greater respect for the equal rights and human dignity of all,” Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said in a statement Tuesday night when it became clear the voters would favor marriage equality.

Six states and the District of Columbia have already legalized same-sex marriage legislatively or judicially.

Another gay rights victory came in Minnesota, where voters decided to not make their state the 31st to add a same-sex marriage ban to its constitution. Same-sex marriage is already illegal in Minnesota, but opponents wanted to make the ban harder to overturn in the future by adding it to the state constitution. It was the first time in the nation that such an amendment had been voted down.

“We’ve passed the tipping point,” said St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly, who has argued in favor of same-sex marriage. “We’ve gone from a country where every time it was on the ballot it was voted down to a single election cycle where it was on the ballot specifically or by proxy and in all four of those circumstances voters essentially affirmed marriage equality.”

When the Maryland General Assembly passed the Civil Marriage Protection Act by thin margins in both chambers in February, it came with the understanding that opponents of the new law would almost assuredly accrue the signatures necessary to send the issue to voter referendum.

Opponents got 122,481 to sign a petition to place the measure on the 2012 ballot, more than twice the 55,736 signatures required.

Del. Peter Murphy (D-Charles), one of the state’s eight openly gay lawmakers, said he never felt nervous about the vote. “It always helps when you get that final word, but I was always confident that it was going to pass,” Murphy said. “I never felt that Maryland wasn’t going to pass it, but when you finally hear the results, I was very glad to hear about it. No matter what the population is, anytime we can do anything to support any initiative to make it fair and equal for someone, that is very personal to me.”

Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s), who joined Murphy as the only two Southern Maryland lawmakers to vote for the same-sex marriage bill in February, said he supported the law was so that voters could decide the issue for themselves. But he also admitted to supporting Question 6 at the voting booth.

“It was a very personal and passionate issue for many that people have the right to be heard on their own, so that’s what we witnessed on Tuesday,” he said. “I know in my own district this is a controversial issue, and I thought in the end that people had the right to be heard on it.”

Opponents accepted the vote on Question 6 but vowed to continue promoting marriage as between one man and one woman.

“We respect the results that have come from a democratic process,” Maryland Marriage Alliance Chairman Derek McCoy said in a Wednesday statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with Maryland residents all across the state to promote strong and healthy marriages that will ensure that all children have the best chance of being raised by a dad and a mom.”

A black woman and U.S. Army veteran who equates the prohibition of same-sex marriage with the discrimination she faced in the military prior to and during implementation of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Christian said her nervousness on Election Day was due in large part to resistance she expected within the black community.

Though Maryland is heavily Democratic, the ultimate fate of Question 6 was in question largely because African-Americans, a reliable Democratic voting bloc, had traditionally opposed same-sex marriage.

But as an increasing number of prominent black leaders came out in support of same-sex marriage, beginning with President Obama in May, polls showed a corresponding shift in the black community.

“I was hopeful Maryland would support it but I didn’t have confidence because of the large African-American community,” Christian said. “But [the vote] told me that we did have support in our own community, so I was very happy to see that.”

Bender also took notice of the support she saw voiced by black church leaders on television Tuesday night.

“There were a couple of ministers in the African-American community that were happy it passed and they were supporting it, which I hadn’t seen, so I think it makes a big difference in society as a whole and I think people are realizing its a human right issue, not just a gay issue,” she said.

Eberly agreed, and said that the results in Maryland, Maine, Washington and Minnesota would be far from the last victories for gay rights activists.

“If you are one of the opponents, one of the motivating factors you could tell like-minded people was that we have defeated this everywhere and every time it has come to the ballot. That can no longer be said,” he said. “I think what has happened in these four states is reflective of people’s shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage. I think we will see this happen more and more” in other states.

Like Eberly, Bohanan believes it will only be a matter of time before same-sex marriage becomes widely accepted in society.

“I think it’s a lot like racial equality in that it took many years for the nation to fully embrace it. Some would argue decades, some would argue we’re still not there on racial equality,” Bohanan said. “This has moved with incredible speed and I think a big part of it is the younger generation sees this as not an issue at all. I think society within 10 years, within five years, it might even be sooner than that, that this becomes an accepted policy for the country.”

jnewman@somdnews.com