the path to marriage equality: what a difference a year – and a president – makes

An edited version of this piece appeared in the May 16, 2013 edition of the SF Bay Times.

Last Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of a marriage equality milestone. On May 9, 2012, President Obama told the nation, “[W]hen I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed … same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet … are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, … it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

President Obama’s statement of support for the freedom to marry, the first by a sitting U.S. president and the culmination of a years-long “evolution,” made history. Even more critically, it made a difference in shaping the conversation that is difficult to overstate.

In May, 2012, just six states and the District of Columbia had recognized marriage equality for same-sex couples. Just one day before the president’s pro-equality statement, in fact, after a bitter ballot initiative campaign and by an overwhelming margin of 61 to 39 percent, North Carolina voters had amended the state’s constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman, and to prohibit same-sex couples not only from marrying but from entering into any “legal domestic union,” including civil unions and domestic partnership.

Our opponents gloated. One more confirmation, they asserted, of their talking point that every time “the people” are allowed to vote on marriage equality, they reject it.

Then the president made his public statement of support for the right of same-sex couples to marry.

And the tide, which already had started to turn, began to swell. 2012 became the watershed year for our movement. Since that spring, for example, public opinion polls consistently have shown majority support for the freedom to marry.

Last September, the Democratic Party made history at its convention when it became the first major American political party to include a “Freedom to Marry” plank in its platform, a plank unanimously approved by the platform committee.

In November, the voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington affirmed that freedom at the ballot box, while Minnesota rejected a constitutional ban like the one North Carolina had ratified only a few months earlier. Overnight, the number of marriage equality states increased by 50 percent. The opposition lost its momentum along with its favorite talking point. “The people” no longer could be counted upon to reject the freedom to marry. To the contrary, “the people” had rejected those who would stand in the way of freedom, unequivocally and without exception, in a four-state sweep.

In January, President Obama again made marriage equality history. In his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol, the president proclaimed, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” Going even further, he invoked “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” clearly tying the contemporary movement for LGBT equality to the civil rights struggles for gender and racial equality.

And the president’s evolution represented just the tip of the iceberg.

Two months ago, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who previously had voted in support of the Defense of Marriage Act and against adoption rights for same-sex couples, became the first sitting Republican senator to announce that he had reversed his position on marriage equality and now supported the freedom to marry.

Portman’s announcement soon was followed by a flood of senators endorsing this freedom. Over just a two-week period in late March and early April, twelve more senators announced their support, including another Republican, Illinois Senator Mark Kirk. When the dust settled, 54 Senators (52 Democrats and 2 Republicans) were on record as supporting marriage equality. Among the 55 Democratic senators, only three still remain opposed.

Now it’s May, 2013, and the landscape is almost unrecognizable from just a year ago. This month is barely half over, in fact, and already the legislatures of three more states – Rhode Island, Delaware, and Minnesota – have passed marriage equality legislation. Moreover, all five of Rhode Island’s Republican state senators voted for the freedom to marry, the first time the legislative caucus of either of the two major political parties, in any state, unanimously had supported equal marriage rights.

Combined with the three states that recognized the freedom to marry last November, the number of marriage equality states has doubled over the past year, from six to twelve, plus the District of Columbia. And Illinois still could swell these ranks by one more before the end of this month.

Given where we stand now compared to one year ago, then, it’s all but impossible to predict how different things might look a year from now.

What will the state of marriage equality be in May, 2014? Which other states might recognize the freedom to marry by then? Oregon, which is planning to take the issue to the voters in November? Ohio, where the state Democratic Party just announced plans to attempt to repeal the state’s constitutional ban and recognize marriage equality, perhaps this fall? New Jersey, which has until January to override the governor’s veto of a marriage bill already passed by the legislature?

And next month also promises to alter the landscape, for better or for worse, as the Supreme Court issues its rulings in the Prop 8 and DOMA cases.

We can only speculate on which of the myriad possible outcomes will prevail – or whether the Court even will rule on the cases’ merits at all – but they include possibilities that could bring the freedom to marry to California alone, to California and the eight other states that offer civil unions or domestic partnerships, or even to all fifty states, though the latter seems unlikely to most advocates and legal analysts.

Even the most restrictive of these positive outcomes – recognizing the freedom to marry only in California – still would be quite significant. Though it would increase the tally of marriage equality states by only one more, because California is so populous the percentage of Americans living in marriage equality states would nearly double.

Of course, the Supreme Court also could uphold Prop 8, ruling that notwithstanding the equal protection guarantees of the U.S. constitution, a majority may vote to restrict or even revoke a minority’s right to marry. But even this worst-case scenario no longer has the power to threaten or discourage me. It is clear, even to our opponents, that the recognition of the freedom to marry is a foregone conclusion, sooner or later.

At its best, the Court could read the same tea leaves and affirm once and for all that the U.S. constitution protects the freedom to marry for all Americans, right now, and regardless of where they live, just as it did in 1967 for interracial couples. But even at its worst, while the Court could slow the pace of freedom a little, it can neither stop nor reverse it. That horse already has left the barn. And it’s pulling a white wedding carriage all the way down to City Hall.

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