Making History

How Far We’ve Come in the 10 Years Since the First Legal Gay Marriage

On the tenth anniversary of that first hard-fought marriage breakthrough in Massachusetts, the movement is celebrating victories in 16 other states and D.C. But the fight isn’t over.

May 17, 2004, still glows in my memory. It was the first time in American history that same-sex couples could get married, and we did, surrounded by loved ones, friends, and neighbors. These first lawful weddings in Massachusetts came on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education—as I called it that day, “civil rights karma.”

Since that long-sought, hard-fought breakthrough in Massachusetts—it’s called the Cradle of Liberty for a reason—we’ve won the freedom to marry in 16 other states and the District of Columbia. We’ve grown a near-supermajority for marriage of 59 percent nationwide that includes majorities among Republicans under 45, Catholics, and, notably, young evangelicals, and majority support in every region of the country, including the South. Following President Obama’s historic embrace of the freedom to marry, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that marriage discrimination is unconstitutional. The federal government now rightly respects married couples in every state as what they are—married—even in states that still discriminate.

My own Massachusetts marriage moment came even earlier, in 1983, when, as a law student at Harvard, I wrote my thesis on why gay people should have the freedom to marry. I argued then, as ever since, that marriage matters, that we can learn from history, and that with a smart strategy and tenacity, change is possible. I believed that by claiming the resonant vocabulary of marriage—love, commitment, connectedness, and freedom—we could transform America’s understanding of who gay people are and why exclusion and discrimination are wrong. How far we have come.

During the decade since gay couples began marrying, not a single church has been forced to perform a marriage it did not support. Religious freedom has been safeguarded.

During these 10 years, the scare tactics of our opponents have been proved false. Their gloom-and-doom scenarios never materialized, families have been helped and no one hurt, and the gays didn’t use up all the marriage licenses. The American people have gotten to see all this for themselves, and that has led to the “rapid collapse of opposition to gay marriage.” Don’t just take my word for it; those are the words of Maggie Gallagher, the former leader of the anti-freedom-to-marry campaign.

And during these past 10 years, our movement again and again turned multiple defeats into multiple victories. Whereas the gay community once endured the enactment of anti-marriage amendments into dozens of state constitutions, we now press forward across the country, with, so far, a dozen federal judges and several state courts ruling against marriage discrimination and striking down bans.

More than 70 marriage cases are making their way through the courts in more than 30 states, and it’s possible the U.S. Supreme Court could rule on one of these marriage cases as soon as June 2015, bringing the freedom to marry to the entire nation.

But winning is not won, and supporters across the country must keep doing the work that shows decision-makers—including judges and, yes, the justices of the Supreme Court—that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry. Our movement made that case in Massachusetts. Now we’re making it in the South, in the Mountain West, in the heartland, in every corner of the country, and through voices that many find unexpected.

Take Ed Cuyler in Oklahoma. This retired U.S. Army colonel served for 12 years and received a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing five soldiers. He appears in a TV ad running in Oklahoma talking powerfully about wanting his lesbian daughter to marry the woman she loves in the state where they are living and raising their child. Stories like these, of moms and dads, pastors and congregations, veterans and active-duty service members, standing up for their gay family members and friends, are everywhere. And it is voices like theirs that will get our country onto the right side of history.

“Freedom means freedom for everyone,” Dick Cheney said in explaining his support of gay marriage. And it means for everyone, everywhere. Thanks to Massachusetts, and Americans throughout the country, Freedom to Marry’s goal of winning marriage nationwide shimmers within reach, as long as we keep doing the reaching.