On Tuesday, the Democrats adopted a plank in their platform calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage. This came on the heels of President Barack Obama’s announcement earlier this summer that he supported same-sex marriage. While we’re still a long way from full national recognition of same-sex marriage, the event still represented a milestone in the quest for equal rights for the LGBT community.
Polling trendlines make it almost inevitable that same-sex marriage will be legalized sooner or later; generally speaking, younger voters are overwhelmingly in favor of allowing two adults to marry, and there are more younger voters every day. It’s easy to forget the long and difficult road that we’ve traveled to get to the cusp of marriage equality.
Early Activism Yields Little
In 1970, less than a year after the Stonewall Riots, gay rights activists Jack Baker and Michael McConnell applied for a marriage license in Hennepin County, the Minnesota county anchored by Minneapolis. At the time, no state laws prohibited same-sex marriage, but the license was still denied on the grounds that common law assumed marriage was between a man and a woman. The pair appealed the case to the Supreme Court, but lost.
The case did spark action — against marriage equality. In 1973, Maryland became the first of many states to outlaw same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, gay rights activists continued to seek licenses, even receiving some in Boulder, C0lo., and Phoenix, Ariz. — although all the licenses were eventually invalidated.
Movement Internationally, Stagnation in America
The late 1970s and 1980s saw little movement on the domestic front. LGBT activism in the 1980s was focused on combating the AIDS epidemic and simply trying to hold ground on basic rights in the face of the Reagan administration. There was little energy to push for marriage at the same time.
That didn’t mean that there were no steps toward marriage equality, though. In 1979, the Netherlands passed a law giving limited rights to same-sex couples. Ten years later, Denmark became the first nation to legalize civil unions for same-sex partners. It wasn’t quite full equality, but it was a step forward.
The Battle is Joined
With the horror of the AIDS epidemic receding, LGBT activists were able to resume the push for marriage equality in the 1990s. In 1990, three same-sex couples sought marriage licenses in Hawai’i. They were denied, but they took their fight to the Hawai’ian Supreme Court, which ruled for them. In 1993, the Aloha state became the first in the Union to legalize same-sex marriage.
The decision was a landmark, but it also energized conservatives, who began to push back hard against same-sex marriage. During the 1996 Iowa Caucuses, every Republican presidential candidate pledged to keep same-sex marriage illegal, including eventual presidential nominee and then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. The only exception was businessman Morry “The Grizz” Taylor, who said, “If you want to be fruity-tooty, so what?”
The Clinton administration expected a difficult re-election fight, especially after losing control of Congress in 1994. Polling ran heavily against same-sex marriage — only 27 percent of voters supported it, while 68 percent were opposed. So rather than defend gay rights, Democrats did what they’d done three years earlier in deciding whether to allow gay soldiers to serve — they caved. Democrats backed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act, which outlawed same-sex marriage at the federal level, denying legally-married same-sex couples the tax and citizenship benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy. The law also made it legal for states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages conducted legally in other states.
The law passed with overwhelming support, and not just from conservative Democrats and Republicans. Even liberal firebrand Sen. Paul Wellstone, DFL-Minn., voted to pass it. By 1998, when anti-marriage equality ballot measures overwhelmingly passed in Alaska and Hawai’i (the latter making Hawai’i the first state to outlaw same-sex marriage), it would have made sense to conclude that same-sex marriage was dead in the water. But much like Westley in The Princess Bride, it was only mostly dead.
The Backlash Against Equality
Republicans continued to demagogue the same-sex marriage issue throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. While there were some positive steps, such as Vermont legalizing civil unions in 2000, the period was dominated by Republicans, who were pushing for a federal anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment.
While the amendment would fail to pass Congress multiple times, it still represented a rallying point for the right. Soon, though, the left would get its own rallying point, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that laws banning same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. The court ordered the state legislature to legalize same-sex marriage within 180 days, or it would simply allow marriages to proceed.
The legislature took no action, and Republican Gov. Mitt Romney called for a state constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage. On May 17, 2004, Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage and not reverse itself.
Republicans reacted with apoplexy, pushing a slew of anti-marriage equality amendments in states across the country. They did so with impunity, because same-sex marriage was still viewed negatively. Only 33 percent of Americans supported marriage equality, while 61 percent opposed it. Indeed, the lure of those amendments for social conservatives is credited with helping to re-elect President George W. Bush in 2004.
The mid-2000s represented the high point for anti-marriage activists, however. As the decade continued, more states moved to support marriage equality. In May of 2008, California’s Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex marriage; Connecticut’s high court followed suit later that year. While California’s ruling was overturned by Proposition 8, Connecticut’s remains in force.
More than anything, though, the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts began to undermine the case against marriage equality. The Bay State had same-sex marriage, and the sky was not falling. Marriages were not breaking up. Gay people were getting married, and nothing much else came of it.
That fact, more than anything, led to a surge in support for marriage equality. While it was still underwater, support for same-sex marriage reached 46 percent in a May 2007 poll, with 53 percent opposed. As more Americans saw that gay marriage did nothing to affect society, more Americans began to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward it.
The End of the Beginning
April of 2009 has to rank as one of the most important months in LGBT civil rights history. That month, Iowa’s high court struck down anti-equality laws. That same month, Vermont became the first state to legislatively extend same-sex marriage rights, when its legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto of marriage equality. Later that month, Connecticut, too, legalized same-sex marriage. The month was capped off with the first poll showing plurality support for same-sex marriage, with supporters outnumbering opponents, 49-46.
Maine and New Hampshire both legalized same-sex marriage later that year, and while there would be setbacks (Maine ultimately repealed its law by ballot initiative), the trend was clear. Same-sex marriage supporters had the momentum. It had become a question of when, not if, same-sex marriage would become legal nationwide.
Today, same-sex marriage is legal in six states, and two others — Maryland and Rhode Island — recognize marriages performed in other states. And while there are still threats to marriage equality — Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington all face votes to outlaw same-sex marriage — the trend is clear. National polls show solid majorities in favor of marriage equality, with opposition dropping into the low 40s. When President Barack Obama came out as a supporter of same-sex marriage, it was a great moment, but it was, like Clinton in 1996, a recognition of political reality: same-sex marriage is popular. It has strong support among younger voters. It may take some more time, but it will be law.
So the addition of a plank backing marriage equality is something to celebrate, but more than that, it’s a relief to future Democrats. When their grandchildren boggle at laws barring same sex marriage — the way we boggle at laws outlawing interracial marriage — Democrats, at least, will be able to say they were the first to get on the right side of history. Republicans…well, they’ll have some explaining to do.
Image Credit: Fibonacci Blue