Voters in the northeastern state of Maine repealed a state law that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed, dealing the gay rights movement a heartbreaking defeat in the corner of the country most supportive of gay marriage.
Gay marriage has now lost in every single state - 31 in all - in which it has been put to a popular vote. Gay-rights activists had hoped to buck that trend in Maine - known for its moderate, independent-minded electorate - and mounted an energetic, well-financed campaign.
With 87 per cent of the precincts reporting, gay-marriage foes had 53 per cent of the votes.
"The institution of marriage has been preserved in Maine and across the nation," declared Frank Schubert, chief organizer for the winning side.
Gay-marriage supporters refused to concede, holding out hope that that the tide might turn as the final returns came in.
"We're here for the long haul and whether it's just all night and into the morning, or it's next week or next month or next year, we will be here," said Jesse Connolly, manager of the pro-gay marriage campaign. "We'll be here fighting. We'll be working. We will regroup."
At issue was a law passed by the Maine Legislature last spring that would have legalized same-sex marriage. The law was put on hold after conservatives launched a petition drive to repeal it in a referendum.
The outcome Tuesday marked the first time voters had rejected a gay-marriage law enacted by a legislature. When Californians put a stop to same-sex marriage a year ago, it was in response to a court ruling, not legislation.
Five other states have legalized gay marriage - starting with Massachusetts in 2004, and followed by Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Iowa - but all did so through legislation or court rulings, not by popular vote. In contrast, constitutional amendments banning gay marriage have been approved in all 30 states where they have been on the ballot.
The defeat left some gay-marriage supporters bitter.
"Our relationship is between us," said Carla Hopkins, 38, of Mount Vernon, with partner Victoria Eleftherio, 38, sitting on her lap outside a hotel ballroom where gay marriage supporters had been hoping for a victory party. "How does that affect anybody else? It's a personal thing."
The contest had been viewed by both sides as certain to have national repercussions. Gay-marriage foes desperately wanted to keep their winning streak alive, while gay-rights activists sought to blunt the argument that gay marriage was being foisted on the country by courts and lawmakers over the will of the people.
Had Maine's law been upheld, the result would probably have energized efforts to get another vote on gay marriage in California, and given a boost to gay-marriage bills in New York and New Jersey.
Earlier Tuesday, before vote-counting began, gay-marriage foe Chuck Schott of Portland warned that Maine "will have its place in infamy" if the gay-rights side won.
Another Portland resident, Sarah Holman said she was "very torn" but decided - despite her conservative upbringing - to vote in favour of letting gays marry.
"They love and they have the right to love. And we can't tell somebody how to love," said Holman, 26.
In addition to reaching out to young people who flocked to the polls for President Barack Obama a year ago, gay-marriage defenders tried to appeal to Maine voters' pronounced independent streak and live-and-let-live attitude.
The other side based many of its campaign ads on claims - disputed by state officials - that the new law would mean "homosexual marriage" would be taught in public schools.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, voters in Washington state voted on whether to uphold or overturn a recently expanded domestic partnership law that entitles same-sex couples to the same state-granted rights as heterosexual married couples. With half the precincts reporting, that race was too close to call.
In Kalamazoo, Michigan, voters approved a measure that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.
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