A Short History of Gay Marriage, Which Turns 10 Today

E.J. Graff
Yahoo News

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Ten years ago today in Massachusetts, same-sex couples began to marry, becoming the first ones to do so in the United States. Opponents had predicted everything from familial destruction to the downfall of Western civilization. But what I saw that early morning when men and women began to have the right to say their vows in Cambridge, Mass., was sheer giddiness.

Eager to be first, officials had kept Cambridge City Hall open late Sunday night so that it could issue licenses precisely at 12:01 a.m. Monday. Hundreds of people turned out for what felt like a street party, lit by the news trucks’s klieg lights. Along with jubilant gays and lesbians, throngs of straight people werethrilled to be witnesses to a new American first. In Arlington, one town over, same-sex newlyweds were handed roses by strangers as they exited the Town Hall. The next day, an acquaintance with a deep Boston accent called to tell me she was keeping her kids home from school to witness her town’s first same-sex weddings. “How often do they get to see history?” she gushed. “Equality gives me goosebumps!”

It all happened so fast. And yet the success of the gay marriage movement never seemed as obvious along the way as it does now.

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Only 11 years before those first marriages, in 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court set off a national panic by telling a lower court to listen seriously to the lawsuit, Baehr v. Lewin (later Baehr v. Miike), brought by three impatient same-sex couples. Not a single lesbian and gay group endorsed the fight. At the time same-sex marriage seemed generations away. The Supreme Court had only seven years earlier upheld state sodomy laws, which made lesbians and gay men into presumptive felons in nearly half of U.S. states. Gay and lesbian groups were still fighting (and only barely defeating) state referenda like Oregon’s 1992 Ballot Measure 9, which would have banned them from teaching and would have written into state law that homosexuality was “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” People just coming out learned to brace themselves for a flicker of disgust and the possibility of social recoil. Many public figures were perfectly willing to say openly that dying horribly of AIDS — then largely untreatable — was an appropriate punishment for being queer.

Then in 1996, the Hawaii district court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. The simmering backlash to the idea of same-sex marriage boiled over. Congress and dozens of states – Hawaii included -- passed “Defense of Marriage Acts,” or DOMAs, declaring marriage to be only between a man and a woman. Veteran LGBT activists were furious at the marriage movement for pushing such a loser issue, provoking the passage of laws they believed would take generations to repeal.

And yet those mid-1990s controversies introduced many people to the idea that same-sex couples wanted to commit themselves to one another lifelong. Pollsters began measuring attitudes toward same-sex marriage. Support headed steadily upward with each year.

In 2003, Evan Wolfson, who had helped the Baehr plaintiffs in Hawaii, founded the national group Freedom to Marry, saying that that gays and lesbians could win marriage equality by 2020 “if we did the work.” At the time, it sounded laughably optimistic, and impossible to achieve: not a single state was yet marrying same-sex pairs. But Wolfson and others did the work. They began organizing nationally to change hearts, minds, editorial board opinions, and candidates’ political platforms. They invested in messaging research, campaign infrastructures, and all the other necessary preconditions for replacing those 30 rapidly passed mini-DOMAs with marriage equality laws.

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Meanwhile, a lawsuit in Vermont had in 1999 delivered the half-measure of civil unions—and set off a fresh round of backlash legislating. The wave of “SuperDOMA” laws and amendments that followed would ban recognition of civil unions, too. But Mary Bonauto of New England’s Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), widely considered the marriage equality movement’s Thurgood Marshall, pressed steadily on. In November 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Bonauto’s case, Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health, ruling that failing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples would violate the state constitution. The ruling set the date for the first same-sex marriages as May 17, 2004, the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Meanwhile, that summer, Mayor Gavin Newsom flung open the doors of San Francisco’s city hall and began marrying same-sex couples, even though he had no authority to do so—a point soon made by California’s courts, which invalidated those marriages and shut Newsom down.

The bicoastal pictures of same-sex couples lining up to marry set off the next panicked wave of anti-equality ballot initiatives in the interior states—initiatives that in some cases were filed, observers believed, specifically to motivate more Republican voters to go to the polls that November to reelect the incumbent president. When John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, many liberals and Democrats pointed to the Massachusetts marriages as a factor, though social science research later showed that not to have been the case.

Nonetheless, the backlash of 2004 had its effect, slowing the march toward marriage equality. It would take another four years—what seemed an interminable wait at the time—before the next two states moved to legalize same-sex unions. In 2008, Connecticut’s and California’s top courts threw open marriage’s doors, although California’s voters yanked that back six months later when they passed Proposition 8, amending the state constitution to overrule their own high court.

In the meantime, because of all the organizing, public opinion was going steadily in just one direction: more and more strongly in favor of marriage equality. Pushed by lesbian and gay groups, Iowa’s top court, and the legislatures of Vermont and New Hampshire, jumped in during 2009. Attorneys general in other states like Rhode Island, New York and Maryland started recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, getting out ahead of their more cautious legislatures.

In 2009, Bonauto launched the next phase of her long-term campaign for marriage equality by filing a lawsuit to challenge the federal DOMA’s refusal to recognize same-sex pairs nationally. Several other LGBT advocacy groups filed similar lawsuits in different circuits, giving the Supreme Court several lawsuits from which to choose. Every federal judge who heard those cases decided DOMA was a federal overreach, and against the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the cause grew so popular that an odd-couple pair of nongay celebrity lawyers, Theodore Olson and David Boies, jumped in with a lawsuit to overturn California’s Prop 8, amplifying publicity for the larger cause.

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2012 was the year in which the whole pinata started to break open. President Obama, after years of hedging, finally announced that he had come to support marriage equality—almost word for word using a suggested script that Wolfson says he passed along through back channels. That was a tipping point in mainstream political circles: Democratic official after official joined the cause, and the chorus of voices for legal recognition of same-sex unions. That fall Wolfson’s and others’ on-the-ground efforts succeeded as never before, as citizens in four states cast ballots in favor of the freedom to marry. A few months later, Windsor v. United States, featuring elderly widowed plaintiff Edie Windsor, reached the Supreme Court. By June, the court had declared DOMA unconstitutional.

Since then, the popcorn has been popping so fast it’s hard to keep up. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now affirmatively marry same-sex couples; three more offer civil unions. Since Windsor, 13 different state and federal judges have concluded that state DOMAs are just as unconstitutional as the federal one was—and in Michigan, Illinois, Utah, and Arkansas, that’s allowed at least some same-sex couples to marry immediately. Most of the decisions are being appealed, and are expected to reach the Supreme Court in another year or two, or maybe three. When they do, everyone expects that the popcorn will be done—and Court will extend its decision in Windsor, allowing same-sex couples to marry nationwide.

Repealing all those laws, which once looked so daunting, will happen almost overnight—because by now, after 20 years of hearing about marriage equality, just about no one cares.

And that’s the part that, if, like me, you first came out back in the bad old days of being hated, can take your breath away. The decades-long fight to win the freedom to marry helped transform people who were called "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse” into folks visible instead as boring, ordinary, and living right next door. After a decade of gay marriages in Massachusetts, when I say “my wife” at a doctor’s office or grade school function, it doesn’t elicit even a flicker of surprise. The same liberal Democrats and pundits who once thought gay people were moving too fast in the marriage fight now wonder what’s taking so long. Republicans are quickly switching sides, seeing the issue as a loser for them as younger voters, including young Republicans who grew up with openly gay friends, become impatient with the old culture war attitudes. Wolfson’s 2020 plan now seems absurdly pessimistic.

The hatred once directed at gay people is a fading scar—not forgotten, but no longer so painful. What we wanted was always so ordinary: to be able to take care of the person we loved most. Incredibly, now we can. As it did for my friend 10 years ago, that gives me goosebumps.

E.J. Graff, senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, is the author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution.