PORTLAND — Gay-marriage supporters held an early lead Tuesday on the most controversial social issue of the day, whether Maine should join six other states in allowing gay and lesbian couples to get married.

Early results in what is expected to be a close race showed 53 percent supporting Question 1, and 47 percent opposing it, with 32 percent of all precincts reporting statewide, according to unofficial tallies.

Several hundred gay-marriage supporters gathered at the Holiday Inn By the Bay ballroom for a festive election night party with a disc jockey who played songs such as Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage.” They cheered at the news that President Obama was projected to win in Maine and considered it a good sign that former Gov. Angus King, an independent who supports same-sex marriage, was called an early winner as well.

Many hoped to erase the stinging memory of 2009, when gay marriage was rejected by Maine voters 53 percent to 47 percent.

“We’ve had a tremendous outpouring of support today,” said David Farmer, spokesman of Mainers United for Marriage, the lead group in support. “We’re seeing good numbers of voters, high turnout, which we think is good for us.”

In Lewiston, opponents gathered at the Ramada Inn, where Protect Marriage Maine leaders Carroll Conley and Bob Emrich tallied results in one room to share with the crowd in the conference room.

Emrich warned that the earliest available results will probably not be pleasing as they will come from places like Portland.

“The early results — those that are machine counted — they often looked skewed,” he said.

If the ballot measure passes, the earliest gay and lesbian couples could marry would likely be early January. That’s because 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.

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

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.

But elsewhere, 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. Since then, other states followed suit — Connecticut in 2008, Iowa in 2009, Vermont in 2009, New Hampshire in 2010 and New York in 2011. In those states, the Legislature or the courts extended the right to gay and lesbian couples.

In that regard, 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.

“What we hope is thousands of gay couples and their kids wake up and feel more safe and secure in their communities,” she said. “We are hopeful history will be made.”

Many of those who voted Tuesday — on both sides — said they were energized by the issue.

Jay Tarbox of Buxton said he was focused on Question 1 as he voted Tuesday afternoon at town hall. He supports allowing same sex couples to marry.

“I liken it to the arguments against interracial marriage,” he said. “If you substitute the word interracial for gay, it’s the same argument over again.”

In Scarborough, Louise Lawrence voted no on Question 1. She went to the polls with her husband of 30 years, Harold Lawrence.

“The sanctity of marriage needs to be preserved,” she said. “I think civil unions are perfectly adequate for people who live alternative lifestyles.”

While this campaign officially began in January when gay advocates turned in more than 100,000 signatures to call for a citizen vote, the roots extend back to 2009, when Mainers rejected gay marriage at the ballot box. Following the repeal of a law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John Baldacci, gay activists began a series of conversations with voters about the issue.

When they announced they were ready to take the issue directly to voters this fall — the first time gay activists have sought approval by popular vote — they said 54 percent of Mainers support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

Immediately, the Christian Civic League said it had a coalition of nearly 40 national and evangelical leaders ready to stand with Maine Christians to fight gay marriage. The league worked closely with the National Organization for Marriage and political consultant Frank Schubert, who orchestrated the successful 2009 repeal and the fight against gay marriage in all four states voting on the issue this year.

The debate over same-sex marriage followed largely similar themes as it did three years ago, with supporters saying gay and lesbian couples need the same legal protections as heterosexual couples, and that society recognizes marriage as a stabilizing force for families. Opponents said those who disagree with gay marriage will lose their ability to speak out against it, and that supporters are seeking to redefine a social institution thatâ¤Âªs been in place for thousands of years.

Marriage brings with it more than 100 state-level rights and responsibilities. If the federal Defense of Marriage Act is struck down by the Supreme Court next year, it would open the door to more than 1,000 federal benefits and regulations, including the ability for gay men and lesbians to collect Social Security upon the death of a spouse.

Joseph Stackpole, 67, of Old Orchard Beach 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, 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 rapidly deteriorated since then, he said, and he now doesn’t expect live for more than seven to 10 days.

“It’s kind of bittersweet because if it passes, it means future people will be able to get married,” Stackpole said. “But it’s too late for us.

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

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