The gay marriage paradox: as acceptance rises, so do legal barriers
President Obama's embrace of gay marriage mirrors growing support among many Americans, but states continue to ban it. The US Supreme Court could play a key role.
When President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage on May 9 – the first time an American president had made such a declaration – he electrified a long-roiling debate.Skip to next paragraph
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To gay-marriage supporters, the right to marry confers public acknowledgment that a same-sex union is normal and legitimate. It also serves as a protection to gay couples and their children.
To opponents, same-sex marriage is a violation of nature that goes against thousands of years of human history and, to some, signals a decline of civilization. For many opponents, it is an affront to God.
Then there’s the murky middle, people who may be evolving in their views, as Mr. Obama was until recently, but still aren’t sure where to land.
Obama’s public shift also shined a light on an apparent disconnect: growing public support for gay marriage even as legal barriers have grown around it. Support for same-sex marriage has risen substantially since 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize it. About half of Americans support it, up from about a third just 10 years ago, polls show.
But the advent of gay marriage in Massachusetts had another effect: Alarmed, conservative activists started putting the issue before voters. So far, they have succeeded in curbing it every time. Including North Carolina’s vote May 8, voters in 31 states have approved constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage; another 10 states have statutory bans. In six states – all in the Northeast except for Iowa – and the District of Columbia, gay marriage is legal. Others allow civil unions and other forms of domestic partnership.
The map is still sorting itself out. In November, voters in Maine and Minnesota, and likely Maryland and Washington – all states that voted for Obama in 2008 – will face ballot measures on gay marriage. With some, if not all, supporters of gay marriage have a shot at ending their losing streak.
Rhode Island, which allows civil unions but not gay marriage, now recognizes gay marriages performed in other states. In the next few years, a few more states are expected to approve constitutional bans as others work to undo theirs. Hanging over this emerging patchwork is the US Supreme Court, with multiple cases heading to its doorstep.
The pace of change has been dizzying. When Brian Powell, a sociologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, began interviewing Americans nationwide in 2003 for a book on attitudes toward gay marriage, discomfort with the topic was palpable.
“Many people would lower their voice when they would say the word ‘gay,’ as if they were talking about a disease,” says Mr. Powell, co-author of “Counted Out: Same-sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family.”