The Supreme Court delighted gay-rights advocates on Friday when it legalised same-sex marriage throughout the US.
The court’s decision comes at a time when support for gay marriage is at an all-time high, and it follows a dramatic shift in public opinion on the emotionally charged issue in a relatively short period of time.
As a 35-year-old lesbian, I’ve seen gay rights advance in ways I never would have envisioned when I was in my early 20s.
Back in 2004, my gay friends and I in Brooklyn, New York, used to have debates about whether it was the “right” time to fight for same-sex marriage.
Massachusetts had become the first state to legalise gay marriage in 2004. That year, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome became something of a gay hero when he ordered the city clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
A few days after Newsome’s bold move, Jason West, then mayor of the small town of New Paltz, New York, got cheers from gay New Yorkers when he started performing same-sex marriages in the Village Hall.
Those events spurred intense discussion about gay marriage among my friends.
I remember one lesbian friend pointing out that she obviously couldn’t be “against” gay marriage. But she wondered why activists weren’t focusing on what she believed were more attainable goals — like making sure gay teens didn’t get beaten up in school.
Others worried about a backlash, and their fears weren’t unfounded. A huge backlash did come in 2004, when 13 states amended their state Constitutions to officially ban same-sex marriage. That year, just 31% of Americans were in favour of gay marriage, according to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.
The US has changed dramatically since 2004. Now, just more than a decade later, 60% of Americans favour same-sex marriage, according to Gallup.
President Barack Obama eventually came out as a supporter of gay marriage in 2012, and even prominent Republicans have officially voiced their support for same-sex marriage.
It was just 1986 — in my lifetime — that the Supreme Court upheld a law in my home state of Georgia that criminalized consensual gay sex.
So, what’s changed? For one thing, it seems like more and more people feel comfortable coming out of the closet these days (including likeable celebrities like Ellen Page and Neil Patrick Harris, as well as powerful Apple CEO Tim Cook).
The other thing that’s changed is the push for gay marriage itself. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the anti-gay Defence of Marriage Act, a law that stated the federal government didn’t recognise gay marriage.
The logic behind that decision led many federal courts to overturn gay marriage bans. As USA Today noted, the number of states that allowed gay marriage grew from 17 to 37 in just the past year.
Though the Supreme Court could have let states continue legalizing gay marriage one by one, that inaction would have rendered same-sex couples in many states second-class citizens.
As Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in his majority opinion, same-sex marriage is about broader equality for gay people.
“As the State itself makes marriage all the more precious by the significance it attaches to it, exclusion from that status has the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects,” Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion.
He added, “It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the nation’s society.”
Back in 2004, gay marriage seemed like an unrealistic and distant reality. Now it’s difficult to imagine America’s highest court having ruled any other way.
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