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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.

In recent years, 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 every single one 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.

“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.

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, chief 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 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 big 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 dawdling 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.

"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 — also married in Washington, D.C., the Waldorf couple 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."

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."

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.”

jnewman@somdnews.com