The Same-Sex Future

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Joseph Barham and Ariel Owens after their marriage at San Francisco City Hall, June 17, 2008

Just four years ago, political pundits were blaming gay rights activists and the Massachusetts Supreme Court for costing Democrats the 2004 presidential election. In 2003, the Massachusetts court had declared, in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, that denying marriage to same-sex couples violated that state’s constitution, marking the first time a state supreme court recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry.1 The decision touched off a widespread backlash; in 2004, eleven states passed referendums amending their constitutions to outlaw same-sex marriage. In 2006, another seven states followed suit. Nor was this a short-term phenomenon. During the last decade, forty-one states have passed statutes banning recognition of same-sex marriages, and twenty-six have amended their constitutions to that effect.

Yet in the last eight months, the tide appears to have dramatically turned. In October 2008, the Connecticut Supreme Court declared that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples was unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, even though Connecticut law already granted same-sex couples all the legal benefits and rights of marriage under the label of “civil unions.”2 In April 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Iowa’s state ban on same-sex marriage denied equal protection of the law to gays and lesbians.3 The same month, the Vermont legislature enacted a law to make same-sex marriages legal, overriding the governor’s veto. Maine enacted a same-sex marriage law on May 6, 2009. On June 3, New Hampshire followed suit. In New Jersey, the Supreme Court has required the state to extend to same-sex couples all the benefits and rights enjoyed by married couples, and the legislature is considering extending marriage itself to such couples.4 And the New York State Assembly has passed a bill to make marriage available to same-sex couples. The bill has the support of Governor David Paterson, though its chances of passage in the Senate remain uncertain.

A similar pattern is evident in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. In 1989, Denmark became the first country in the world to grant official recognition to gay and lesbian couples as domestic partners. In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to extend marriage to same-sex couples. Today, same-sex couples can be married in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Norway, and Sweden, and can register their partnerships and obtain many of the benefits granted to married couples in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Despite the dramatic recent progress in the United States, however, there remains substantial and heated public opposition. When the California Supreme Court declared in May 2008 that the state’s constitution required recognition of same-sex marriages, the voters promptly amended the state’s constitution via referendum to ban same-sex marriage. On May 26,…

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