Twenty years ago the subject of gay marriage in the United States seemed to be almost a joke. Yet here we sit, a scant twenty years later, counting the number of states that have already embraced the concept, and looking ahead to other states joining suit. While the future of gay marriage is still somewhat unclear, the sheer diversity of the states that have legalized it is amazing to behold.
As the future of gay marriage moves forward, it is instructive to look back at those first bellwether states and how they helped to reshape the face of the nation.
The state of Connecticut officially allowed gay marriages to take place starting on November 12, 2008. That made Connecticut the third state to officially allow same-sex couples to marry. The state had previously enacted a civil union law back in 2005. That law gave gay and lesbian couples many of the same protections as marriage, and it became law on April 20, 2005 when the governor signed the bill. Civil unions for gay and lesbian couples officially began on October 1 of the same year. The new gay marriage law established in 2009 replaces those civil union and gives those same-sex unions the official recognition of the state.
The legalization of gay marriage in Iowa proved once and for all that support for same-sex relationships is not confined to the coasts. The harbinger of all things Midwestern, Iowa joined the gay marriage parade on April 3, 2009. But although that is the date gay marriage officially became legal, it is not the first time Iowans had grappled with this thorny issue.
Iowa first began looking at the issue back in 1998, when a series of court cases found that denying gays and lesbians the right to marry violated the Equal Protection Clause of the constitution in many states. Iowa first reacted to these lawsuits by passing their own version of the Defense of Marriage Act, essentially barring gays and lesbians from marrying in the state.
A 2005 lawsuit filed on behalf of six Iowa couples denied marriage licenses revived the issue, and in 2007 a court in Polk County, Iowa ruled in favor of those same-sex couples. Then on April 3, 2009 the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there was no basis to deny these couples, or any same-sex couples, the right to marry.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was one of the first in the country to recognize the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. The history of gay marriage in Massachusetts goes back to May of 2004, when the Supreme Judicial Court in the state ruled that the language restricting marriages to heterosexual couples was unconstitutional.
The decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was controversial at the time, and it remains controversial to this day. But in the meantime thousands of gay and lesbian couples have been able to marry and start families in the Commonwealth.
On New Year’s Day 2010 New Hampshire joined the growing list of states that formally recognize marriages by same-sex couples. This new marriage law in the state of New Hampshire replaced the existing law, which had granted gays and lesbians the right to form civil unions but stopped short of granting those couples the right to marry.
The state of New Hampshire had previously adopted that civil union legislation back on January 1, 2008. The bill to legalize those civil unions was passed in April of 2007, but the actual legislation did not take effect until the dawning of the new year. Meanwhile, same-sex couples continued to fight for full marriage recognition, with its host of legal protections, and on January 1, 2010 they finally got their wish.
The state of Vermont officially recognized marriages between gay and lesbian couples on September 1, 2009. Vermont had long been a bellwether state in terms of gay marriage. The state was the first to introduce same-sex civil unions for gays and lesbians, way back in July 2000, when few people took the issue of gay marriage seriously.
Then in March of 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee in the state of Vermont unanimously recommended that same-sex marriage be implemented. The State Senate and House followed through and passed the bill, although it was later vetoed by the governor. Even so, the State Senate in Vermont was able to override that veto, and gay marriage became the law of the land.
Washington, D.C. joined the parade of locations recognizing gay marriage in March of 2010. Those first same-sex marriage licenses were issued following months of wrangling and trepidation over a bill passed by the city council would ever go into effect.
That bill, known officially as the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009, gave gays and lesbians the right to marry, and when news of the bill’s passage started to spread, couples from the D.C. area quickly began lining up for those first marriage licenses. Gay marriage officially became legal in Washington, D.C. on March 9 of 2010.
New York joined the gay marriage bandwagon in 2011, and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and New York state residents took to the streets to celebrate the decision to legalize same-sex unions.
The decision to legalize same-sex marriages in New York state is a fairly recent one, dating back to June 24, 2011. That is when the legislature in the Republican-dominated New York Senate officially passed the bill by a vote of 33 to 29. The governor of New York quickly signed the bill into law, making New York the largest state to officially recognize gay marriage. Gay and lesbian couples can officially begin applying for marriage licenses in late July.
California first began issuing marriage license to same-sex couples back on June 16, 2008, following a ruling by the Supreme Court of California. That ruling held that denying gays and lesbians the right to marry violated the equal protection clause in the state constitution. Following that ruling, opponents of gay marriage mounted a successful campaign to ban the practice through Proposition 8, which was placed on the ballot in the 2008 general election. That proposition officially amended the California Constitution to state that marriage is between one man and one woman, leaving the future of gay marriage in the state of California up in the air. This was overturned by the District Court. It was appealed by proponent of the initiative all the way to the Supreme Court, which found that they did not have standing to bring the appeal, meaning that the District Court’s ruling stood and Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.
By now, the following states permit same sex marriages: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Even though the issue of gay marriage remains controversial, and the future of same-sex unions remains in doubt in many places, many strides have been made. In a relatively short period of time, gay marriage has become the law of the land in a number of states, from the west coast to the east, and legislatures in other states continue to tackle this difficult and sometimes emotional issue.
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