A Brief Timeline of Marriage Equality in the U.S. (So Far)

“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Marriage equality has been back in the news following such milestones as President Obama’s public support of the rights of same-sex couples to marry, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s much-anticipated wedding, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.  It’s important to note that Mitt Romney opposes not only same-sex marriage, but civil unions, which even Pres. George W. Bush supported. Here’s a brief look back at how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go…

  • 1993
    Hawaii Supreme Court rules that denial of same-sex couples’ right to marry violates the Equal Protection clause of the state constitution and remands the case to the lower court for further proceedings.  Subsequently, in 1998, Hawaii passes a state constitutional amendment reserving the right to define marriage to the Legislature, which then bans same-sex marriage.
  • 1996
    President Clinton signs the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which upholds states’ rights to ban same-sex marriages and refuse to recognize such marriages performed elsewhere.
  • 1999-2000
    Vermont Supreme Court rules that the state constitution guarantees same-sex couples the same rights to marry as heterosexual couples, but leaves it up to the legislature to decide how to provide marriage rights and benefits to same-sex couples.  In 2000, Gov. Howard Dean signs a civil union bill, making Vermont the first state to legally recognize same-sex couples.
  • 2003-04
    Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rules that the state constitution guarantees equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.  Gov. Mitt Romney’s attempt to overturn the decision through a constitutional amendment is ultimately unsuccessful.Voters in 13 states (Missouri, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah) pass constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.  In the years to come, 20 more states follow.
  • 2005
    Connecticut authorizes civil unions.
  • 2006
    Following a court decision requiring the state to grant equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, New Jersey authorizes civil unions.
  • 2007
    Washington, Oregon, and New Hampshire authorize civil unions.
  • 2008
    Connecticut Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage.California Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage, but it is overturned by constitutional amendment in the notorious referendum Proposition 8.  Prop 8 is, in turn, struck down by the federal courts, and the case may yet be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • 2009
    Iowa Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage.New Hampshire, Vermont, and D.C. legislatures approve same-sex marriage.Maine passes same-sex marriage, which is subsequently overturned by referendum, and Washington passes “everything-but-marriage” law, which is upheld by referendum.
  • 2011
    New York legislature passes same-sex marriage.Rhode Island, Illinois, Delaware, and Hawaii authorize civil unions.
  • 2012
    Maryland and Washington legislatures pass same-sex marriage, but they are subject to referendums in November 2012.  Delaware and Hawaii authorize civil unions.Gov. Chris Christie vetoes a same-sex marriage bill in New Jersey that passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and Assembly.North Carolina passes constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.Pres. Obama becomes the first president to publicly support marriage equality.

    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston strikes down a key part of DOMA.


  1. Carolyn says:

    Great timeline, Lenny. It always bugs me when anyone’s rights are subject to referendum.

    • Lenny says:

      Quite right, Carolyn. As the great Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once wrote: “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

  2. Betsy Malcolm says:

    Thanks for writing this! It’s nice to see how far we’ve come in such a short time.

  3. Alan says:

    Thanks, Lenny, for compiling this. Always helps to put such major issues into historical context. Basic rights are still up for a struggle, even after all that took place in decades long past. So very sad….

  4. Bob Lamm says:

    From a conversation last night with Lenny and Betsy, I’d like to add a comment regarding this extremely valuable piece.

    Some people apparently claim that progress on this issue is moving slowly. I think that view is understandable but wrong. Of course we still have lots of work ahead of us to make marriage equality a reality across the United States and to fully assure the rights of everyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. But I’d like to note two things:

    1. I graduated from Yale in 1969, only weeks before Stonewall. During my four years at Yale, to my knowledge there was absolutely NO ONE in the entire university who was out. That was only 43 years ago, which isn’t much time from the perspective of human or even U.S. history. The progress on LGBT rights since then has been remarkable, though of course incomplete.

    2. Even a decade ago, it seemed unthinkable that by 2012 a bunch of states (including New York) would have legalized marriage equality and that a sitting president of the U.S. would publicly support this human rights cause.

    Today, when I speak with teenagers and adults in their 20s about how as late as 1967 there were legal bans in the U.S. against interracial marriage, they typically look at me like I’m nuts. As if I must be speaking about 1767 or 1867 instead of 1967. The same will be true in the future about marriage equality. At some point in the future, most people will look back on all this and say: “Really??? People wanted to keep gay male couples or lesbian couples from getting married??? Really???”

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