Getting Nearer and Nearer

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David McNew/Getty Images
Protesters at an anti–gay marriage rally in Los Angeles, May 2004, after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage

When Billie Holiday promised, “the difficult I’ll do right now, the impossible will take a little while,” she admitted that she was “crazy in love.” But that lyric might well serve as the anthem of the gay rights movement, which has achieved, more swiftly than any other individual rights movement in history, not merely the impossible, but the unthinkable. Those who have fought for what might be called the privileges of gay romance—the rights to marry and to have intimate sexual relations with the partner of one’s choosing, regardless of gender—were called crazy, and worse, by many. But with respect to both sodomy and marriage laws, they have proven not foolish romantics, but visionaries.

When Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel sued the state of Hawaii for the right to marry in 1991, no state, indeed no country, recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry. Gay rights groups at the time opposed the filing, worried that it would create bad law and/or spark anti-gay resentment. Most of the American public, it is safe to say, had hardly considered the issue, precisely because it was unthinkable. At the time, 75 percent of Americans thought gay sexual relations were morally wrong, and only 29 percent thought gays and lesbians should be permitted to adopt children. When, in the early 1980s, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors became the first city council in the country to recognize domestic partnerships, Mayor Dianne Feinstein vetoed the ordinance.

Today, two thirds of Americans, including Rush Limbaugh, support civil unions for same-sex couples; nine states and the District of Columbia have recognized gay marriage; and nine more have recognized same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships with all or most of the benefits associated with marriage. In the 2012 election, after an unbroken string of losses on popular referenda, gay marriage proponents prevailed on all four state ballot initiatives addressing the issue. Voters in Maryland, Maine, and Washington approved referenda expressly authorizing the recognition of gay marriage, and Minnesota voters rejected an amendment banning gay marriage.

Polls suggest that this progress will continue. A nationwide poll this year by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 62 percent of people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine favor gay marriage, while only 31 percent of those sixty-five and over do so. Nate Silver, the statistician best known for his FiveThirtyEight blog, who accurately predicted Obama’s victories in both 2008 and 2012, has analyzed demographic data state by state and projected that no later than next year a majority of people in a majority of the states will support gay marriage. By 2016, Silver says, the only states that will still have a majority opposing it will be in the Deep South; and by 2024, a majority will favor gay marriage even in Mississippi, likely to be …

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