AUGUSTA — From the re-election of President Barack Obama to wins in four states that voted on gay marriage, it was big day Tuesday for gay rights, national advocates said Wednesday.

The 2012 election will be remembered as the “most historic election of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality movement,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

“It truly was a milestone year and a mandate for equality,” Griffin said during a conference call Wednesday with reporters.

In addition to Obama, who lifted the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy and publicly backed same-sex marriage in May, Griffin named members of Congress who will be supportive of gay rights.

Among the U.S. senators elected Tuesday, he named Maine’s Angus King, an independent and former governor, as one of a half-dozen senators-elect who are pro gay rights.

Voters approved same-sex marriage ballot initiatives in Maine, Maryland and Washington, and defeated a proposed constitutional amendment in Minnesota that would have banned gay marriage. In Maine, voters approved Question 1 by 53 percent to 47 percent, according to unofficial results.

Maryland and Washington voted 52 percent to 48 percent to uphold laws passed by their legislatures to approve gay marriage, and Minnesota voters defeated the proposed ban, also by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin, news outlets reported Wednesday.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said the momentum that brought them to victory dates back to 2008, when California, Florida and Arizona voters adopted constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage in those states. That’s when heterosexual supporters began to push for equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians, she said.

“For many years, our community has been in a defensive posture,” she said. “Something changed in 2008 and we have seen an outpouring of support from volunteers, from people who are straight.”

The movement suffered a blow in 2009 when Mainers repealed a gay marriage law passed by the Maine Legislature and signed into law by Gov. John Baldacci. But shortly after that vote, they began working on the campaign to change enough minds on the issue to bring it back this year.

And while Carey and Griffin claimed victory following the election, the National Organization for Marriage, the leading contributor to gay-marriage opposition in Maine and elsewhere, vowed to redouble its efforts to preserve the traditional definition of marriage.

“Obviously we are very disappointed in losing four tough election battles by narrow margins,” NOM president Brian Brown said in a prepared statement. “We knew long ago that we faced a difficult political landscape with the four marriage battles occurring in four of the deepest blue states in America. Marriage is a true and just cause, and we will never abandon the field of battle just because we experienced a setback.”

Once the laws in Maine, Maryland and Washington take effect, same-sex marriage will be legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. In 31 states, gay marriage is banned by state constitutions.

Griffin said his group spent more than $20 million to support Obama’s re-election and to help pay for same-sex ballot initiatives in the four states. He highlighted the election of Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, who is now the first openly gay person ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

Griffin said the election of New Hampshire’s new governor, Maggie Hassan, ensures that New Hampshire’s 2010 gay marriage law is safe from potential repeal. And the Human Rights Campaign identified Colorado and Minnesota as two Democratic state legislatures that may become the next battleground for gay-marriage legislation.

He said he hopes to avoid popular votes like the one in Maine.

“Putting one’s fundamental civil rights up to a vote of the people is not something we should have to do in this country,” he said. “It’s not the American way.”

As they look to the road ahead, gay activists say the movement has turned a corner.

“This is the dawn of a new day for marriage equality in America,” Carey said. “We still have a ways to go before all families can share in the celebration and responsibilities of marriage, but today we woke up much farther down that road than we were the day before. These wins at the ballot box are breathtaking, history-making milestones for our country.”

Susan Cover — 621-5643

[email protected]

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