PORTLAND — Maine voters made history Tuesday by being the first in the country to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, leading gay-rights activists to call it an important step forward.

“Supporters from Portland to Presque Isle thought that truth and love are more powerful than fear and deception,” said Matt McTighe, campaign manager of Mainers United for Marriage, in a victory speech.

With 49 percent of precincts reporting, 54 percent of Mainers voted in support of same-sex marriage, while 46 percent opposed it, according to unofficial results. The Associated Press called the race around midnight. Same-sex marriage opponents conceded around 1:30 a.m.

Supporters rejoiced at the news at the Holiday Inn By the Bay, where many hoped to erase the stinging memory of 2009, when a law legalizing same-sex marriage was overturned by Maine voters, 53 percent to 47 percent.

The earliest gay and lesbian couples could marry will likely be early January. The Secretary of State’s Office has 20 days to certify results, Gov. Paul LePage has 10 days to approve them, and after that, there’s a constitutionally mandated 30-day waiting period for the law to take effect, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Despite the uncertain timeline, McTighe said all gay and lesbian couples can now look forward to a time when they can make a public – and legal – commitment to one another.

“We’ll be able to stand before friends and family and make that lifetime commitment we’ve dreamed about,” he said.

In Lewiston, opponents of Question 1 were gathered at the Ramada Inn, where Protect Marriage Maine’s leaders Carroll Conley and Bob Emrich tallied results in one room to share with the crowd in the conference room. A small group remained there late Tuesday night.

“When we started this campaign, we said marriage was in trouble in our country.” Conley said. “The problems that have weakened this critical institution started long before this present attempt to redefine it. We made the case for traditional marriage and we’re terribly disappointed that we were not able to convince enough voters to hold on to the value of traditional marriage for society and we genuinely fear for the consequences we’ve raised during the campaign.”

Conley called upon the faith community to focus its resources on marriage and thanked the volunteers who had been part of the campaign.

The vote will have national implications, for state-level battles and for the Supreme Court, which is likely to take up at least one gay-marriage case next year.

“This is a landmark election for marriage equality and we will forever look back at this year as a critical turning point in the movement for full citizenship for LGBT people,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “Voters in Maine came to the common-sense conclusion that all people deserve the ability to make loving, lifelong commitments through marriage.”

Maine is one of four states that voted Tuesday on gay marriage, with Maryland and Washington considering whether to uphold laws passed by their legislatures and Minnesota deciding whether to adopt a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Across the country, 31 states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

In six states and the District of Columbia, gay couples have been able to legally marry since 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to allow it.

Maine is unique among states because gay activists bypassed the Legislature and the courts, and took the issue directly to voters.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called the four votes across the country critical for the gay-rights movement.

Many who voted Tuesday – on both sides – said they were energized by the issue.
“I’m delighted,” said Joseph Stackpole, 67, of Old Orchard Beach, who watched the returns alongside Richard Johnson, his partner of 16 years, at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough.

Stackpole moved into the hospice Tuesday afternoon following a 17-day stay  at Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he was diagnosed with plasma cell leukemia – an aggressive and incurable type of cancer.

In an interview late last month with Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz, Stackpole said he’d hoped to live long enough for his and Johnson’s marriage, performed in Massachusetts in 2008, to be legally recognized in Maine.

But his condition has deteriorated rapidly since then, he said, and he doesn’t expect to still be alive when Maine’s same-sex marriage law takes effect in mid-December.

Nevertheless, he said, publicly sharing his and Johnson’s story in the days leading up to the vote “feels like my lifetime crowning achievement.”

“The people of Maine finally came through,” Stackpole said. “My faith in them wasn’t in vain.”

Staff Writers Ed Murphy, Ann Kim and Gillian Graham contributed to this report, as did columnist Bill Nemitz.

Susan Cover can be reached at 621-5643 or at: [email protected]