New Century, Old Disputes


In the 1990s, the idea of legal, same-sex marriage seemed particularly unlikely; neither of the two main political parties expressed support for it. Things began to change, however, following Vermont’s decision to allow same-sex couples to form state-recognized civil unions in which they could enjoy all the legal rights and privileges of marriage. Although it was the intention of the state to create a type of legal relationship equivalent to marriage, it did not use the word “marriage” to describe it.

Following Vermont’s lead, several other states legalized same-sex marriages or civil unions among gay and lesbian couples. In 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that barring gays and lesbians from marrying violated the state constitution. The court held that offering same-sex couples the right to form civil unions but not marriage was an act of discrimination, and Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry. Not all states followed suit, however, and there was a backlash in several states. Between 1998 and 2012, thirty states banned same-sex marriage either by statute or by amending their constitutions. Other states attempted, unsuccessfully, to do the same. In 2007, the Massachusetts State Legislature rejected a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would have prohibited such marriages.

Watch this detailed documentary on the attitudes that prevailed in Colorado in 1992, when the voters of that state approved Amendment 2 to the state’s constitution and consequently denied gay and lesbian Coloradans the right to claim relief from local levels of discrimination in public accommodations, housing, or jobs.

While those in support of broadening civil rights to include same-sex marriage were optimistic, those opposed employed new tactics. In 2008, opponents of same-sex marriage in California tried a ballot initiative to define marriage strictly as a union between a man and a woman. Despite strong support for broadening marriage rights, the proposition was successful. This change was just one of dozens that states had been putting in place since the late 1990s to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional at the state level. Like the California proposition, however, many new state constitutional amendments have faced challenges in court (Figure). As of 2014, leaders in both political parties are more receptive than ever before to the idea of same-sex marriage.

Photograph (a) shows supporters and protestors of same-sex marriage gathered outside of San Francisco’s City Hall. Photograph (b) shows supporters flying rainbow flags outside of the Iowa Supreme Court; in the center of the image, they hold a sign that reads, “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.”
Supporters and protesters of same-sex marriage gather in front of San Francisco’s City Hall (a) as the California Supreme Court decides the fate of Proposition 8, a 2008 ballet measure stating that “only marriage between a man and a woman” would be valid in California. Following the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, supporters rally in Iowa City on April 3, 2009 (b). The banner displays the Iowa state motto: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” (credit a: modification of work by Jamison Wieser; credit b: modification of work by Alan Light)

Visit the Pew Research site to read more about the current status of same-sex marriage in the United States and the rest of the world.