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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

St. Louis' Newly Wed Gay Couples Reflect On Why Attitudes On Gay Marriage Have Shifted

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Tod Martin, left, and David Gray speak at a press conference last week. St. Louis officials married the couple last week, sparking a challenge -- and public reflection -- of the state's gay marraige ban.

Tod Martin wasn’t going to let 20 words keep him from marrying David Gray.

While it took more than 20 years, St. Louis officials last week issued Martin and Gray a marriage license. They’re among eight people who are testing the state’s nearly 10-year-old, 20-word ban on gay marriage.

It’s a direct challenge, Martin said, that may be less jarring today than it would have been even a few years ago — especially since gay marriage bans are being struck down or overturned around the country. 

What’s happening in Missouri, Martin said, “simply echoes what we see across the entire country.”

The greater visibility of gays and lesbians has led, he said, to greater acceptance.

“So many people have friends and family who are LGBT who are more comfortable talking about it now,” Martin said. “They recognize that these folks are just like me. [They say,] ‘If I can enjoy the trials and tribulations of marriage, why shouldn’t my son or daughter or my brother or sister or my friend or neighbor be able to do so as well?’ It really makes no sense to deny marriage equality to somebody based on who they love.”

Gray chimed in: “Why would anybody want to deny anybody of this experience who love each other, right?”

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has been forthright in his support for gay rights before many of the state's political figures. He has three siblings who are gay or lesbian.

Aug. 3 is the 10-year anniversary of the passage of the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage. It received over 70 percent of the vote and, as a result, made it impossible for the General Assembly to legalize same-sex marriage. Only a court order or another vote could overturn the amendment. 

One of the few major political figures who opposed the 2004 amendment was St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

“What more and more people are finding out is we’re just all people,” said Slay, who has three siblings who are gay or lesbian. “And we should be treated as people — and treated just like everyone else and should not be discriminated based on who we love. And love is a good thing. And commitment is a good thing. And families are a good thing. And I think more and more people are realizing that.”

John Durnell and Richard Eaton were the first to receive a marriage license last Wednesday. They echoed Slay’s sentiments. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Richard Eaton, left, and John Durnell were the first couple granted marriage licenses in the state of Missouri.

Ten years ago, Eaton said, St. Louis’ Pride Festival was much smaller. People, he said, would try not to get in front of television cameras “because it was risky.”

“You will see thousands of people downtown at the parade,” Eaton said. “Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have seen that.”  

Durnell said same-sex marriage opposition has waned, thanks to changing attitudes among young people.

“I see our state changing because the younger generation really doesn’t find this as an issue,” Durnell said. “Ten years is a big difference of how our state thought and how it thinks now. I see quickly a time when this is no longer newsworthy. It’s just going to be the norm."

Is Missouri ready?

Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus — Missouri's first openly gay senator — told this reporter in late 2012 that her presence in the General Assembly softened some of her fellow legislators' anti-gay rhetoric.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Senate Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, said her presence in the Missouri Senate softened the rhetoric of some socially conservative lawmakers.

In May, she predicted it was only a matter of time before Missouri extended anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians. Whether that means the state is ready to embrace gay marriage too, she said, remains to be seen.

“Because of the overwhelming number of individuals who have come out over the last decade, you see folks who can no longer come up with a justification for why they shouldn’t provide basic protections in the workplace,” Justus said. “And frankly, I don’t think Missouri’s much farther behind on the marriage issue either. If it came to a vote today, I don’t know if it would win. But I know it wouldn’t lose at the same levels that it lost in 2004.”

During an appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast, Republican political consultant James Harris noted that he’d recently polled the issue of gay marriage.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Republican political consultant James Harris has worked for a number of candidates who've emphasized opposition to gay marriage, such as Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman.

“Fundamentally, the majority of Missouri voters still believes in the constitutional amendment,” Harris said. “Just like nationally, younger people 35 or younger have a different outlook, (but) people 60-plus are much more supportive of the amendment. And it’s an issue that is changing. We’re seeing it around the country.”

Harris questioned whether a court challenge was the proper way to try to alter a voter-approved measure. House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, made a similar argument in a statement he released last week.

“It’s not the right recourse for activists to go to the courts and force them to make these decisions,” Harris said. “The proper course is to put new ballot measures before the voters and either have them decide them or have, as some states have, legislatures and governors come together and enact new legislation to allow that.” 

It’s relatively common to argue against modifying or eliminating voter-approved initiatives. After all, numerous political figures — primarily Democrats — have sharply criticized efforts to repeal or alter initiatives that imposed campaign contribution limits or regulated dog breeding facilities.   

But Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to Slay, said this fight is different.

“We all learned this in the 8th grade: The majority doesn’t rule when the majority is imposing unconstitutional limits on the civil rights of the minority,” Rainford said. “It used to be that Missouri banned interracial marriage. I think we’d all agree today that even if a majority of people wanted that, we should not tolerate it.”

'The way things are'

Martin perhaps has had a better view than most of how the politics of gay marriage have changed.  

Martin has been deputy chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill since 2007. And while McCaskill joined Slay in opposing the 2004 amendment, she didn’t express support for gay marriage until 2013.

Soon after McCaskill's announcement, Gov. Jay Nixon — who expressed opposition to same-sex marriage during his 2012 election campaignfollowed suit. Even the person challenging St. Louis’ right to issue licenses to same-sex couples — Attorney General Chris Koster — emphasized he supports marriage equality. 

With gay marriage bans being challenged -- and defeated -- across the country, Martin said it's only a matter of time before what he and Gray did become commonplace everywhere.

“I think you already see what we did here today, maybe it makes a little bit of a blip on the national radar. But it doesn’t make the same kind of impact that it would have made a year or two years ago,” Martin said. “I’m hopeful in five or 10 years, nobody’s going to know any of us who participated in this — that we were here for this.

“It’s going to be the way things are, that two people who love each other are allowed to get married to each other — regardless of who it is that they love,” he added.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.