What is the history of the same-sex marriage movement?

March 25, 2004

Julie Stevens and Claudia Vasquez at their marriage in San Francisco, February 2004 –Photo- AFP
Today, same-sex marriage is in the news as never before, following favorable court decisions in Canada and Massachusetts. But the gains of 2003 were the result of a decades-long struggle.

The first same-sex marriage case to gain widespread attention was that of Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell. With their priest's blessing, the men applied for a state marriage license in May 1970. Their request was denied and the couple sued, arguing that their due process and equal protection rights had been violated. The following year, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that past U.S. Supreme Court decisions did not support the men's position.

Two years later, several same-sex couples in Boulder, Colo., succeeded in obtaining marriage licenses after a local district attorney declared that no county laws specifically prohibited such unions. The state attorney general soon overturned the district attorney's ruling, however, and all same-sex marriage licenses were revoked.

In December 1990, three couples applied for marriage licenses in Hawaii. When denied, they initiated a lawsuit, arguing that prohibition of same-sex marriage amounted to discrimination on the basis of sex. The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the state must show a "compelling reason" to deny same-sex marriage, and sent the case back to a lower court. Three years later, circuit court judge Kevin Chang again ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, rejecting the state's argument that same-sex marriage was detrimental to children. "This decision marks the beginning of the end to sex discrimination in marriage," declared Evan Wolfson, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

The Hawaii case ignited a national firestorm of controversy and spurred a stream of state laws that banned same-sex marriage and refused to recognize such marriages performed in other states. This reaction culminated in the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." By the beginning of 2004, nearly 40 states had also enacted their own legislation against same-sex-marriage.

Back in Hawaii, same-sex marriage opponents began a drive to amend the state constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Their efforts succeeded in November 1998, before the Supreme Court could issue its final ruling in the pending case. The court finally declared the lawsuit dead in December 1999.

But less than two weeks later, disappointment turned to celebration when the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that "the State is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law." In April 2000, Vermont governor Howard Dean signed a law in April 2000 granting same-sex couples all the state benefits of marriage through a new type of "civil union."

In 2003, LGBT activists were buoyed by a federal Supreme Court ruling that overturned state sodomy laws, as well as by court decisions in two Canadian provinces allowing same-sex marriage. But the climax came in November when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that state law restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples was unconstitutional. The justices gave the state legislature 180 days to remedy the discrimination.

However, queer couples still face a growing conservative backlash, including an effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage once and for all.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

Further Reading
  • Eskridge, William. 1996. The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment (Free Press).
  • Martinac, Paula. 1998. The Lesbian and Gay Book of Love and Marriage (Broadway Books).
  • Sullivan, Andrew (ed.). 1997. Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con. A Reader (Vintage).

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