After marriage equality’s historic gains in 2013, with six states legalizing same-sex unions (from Illinois to Hawaii), many expected the movement to slow down this year. But following a court decision overturning Utah’s marriage ban in late December, the marriage issue has been on a hot streak throughout the country – with even red states like Oklahoma and Texas suddenly on the brink of equality.
Last November, Rolling Stone talked to LGBT rights advocates about their predictions for the future of equality, forecasting which states would be having the marriage discussion and when – but no one could have predicted things would be moving this quickly. Here are five reasons that same-sex marriage is taking America by storm:
1. The Supreme Court’s United States v. Windsor ruling was a watershed moment for marriage equality.
Last June, the Supreme Court made history, ruling that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to refuse benefits to same-sex couples who are married under state law. Although the court avoided making a sweeping judgment on the larger question of whether same-sex couples across the country have a constitutional right to marry, Marc Solomon, the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, believes the decision set an important precedent for states on the issue. “The power of the Windsor decision is hard to overstate,” says Solomon. “The majority opinion eviscerated every argument for keeping same-sex couples out of marriage, and encouraged judges to look at marriage discrimination.”
Since the Supreme Court’s ruling, courts in Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah have struck down legislation banning same-sex marriage in their states – each citing United States v. Windsor. In his dissenting opinion, the arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia predicted this momentum. “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency,” wrote Scalia, “the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.”
Jim Bennett, the Midwest regional director for Lambda Legal, argues that the groundswell of judiciary support in the lower courts means that the Supreme Court will eventually have to make a broader decision on marriage equality. The court’s ruling has led to confusion in the states about which marriages count and where: Are marriage rights determined by the place the nuptials were celebrated or the residents’ home state? “The courts are going to have to clean this up,” says Bennett. “I think that the Supreme Court expected this to come back to them, but they might not have expected it would come back so soon.”
2. Marriage equality isn’t just an issue for the coasts anymore. It’s also winning the heartland.
Texas, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia all had strongly conservative histories on marriage equality – until now. Rick Garcia, the policy director for the Civil Rights Agenda, believes that this reflects an important shift. “States we never even considered on the playing field are now there,” says Garcia, an Illinois resident. “I always assumed that in the Deep South, we would see marriage equality in 10 years, if we were lucky. That changed overnight. Now it’s not just something that’s happening in New York City and San Francisco. It’s happening next door to us.”
According to Marc Solomon, this shows that the growing support for marriage equality isn’t just with the courts. A recent Washington Post poll indicated that nationwide support for same-sex marriage has reached historic highs, with a whopping 59 percent in favor. Only 34 percent of those polled opposed marriage equality – a figure that’s plummeted from the massive 62 percent opposition in 2004. “I think that there’s a sense that younger people are good [on marriage equality] and older people aren’t, and it’s true that we do better with younger demographics,” says Solomon. “However, we’re seeing growth among every way you can break down our society.”
Solomon hopes to highlight the growing support for marriage rights among seniors, young evangelicals and Republicans. On March 2nd, 20 prominent conservatives, including former Senators Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming and Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, filed a brief advising the federal appeals court to rule Oklahoma and Utah’s marriage prohibitions unconstitutional. (Both states have appealed their state judges’ recent rulings in favor of equality.) The paper’s conservative supporters argued that allowing same-sex couples to wed strengthens marriage, as “the social stability of the family unit [is] promoted.”
3. States are realizing that being gay-friendly is good for business.
In addition to the Windsor decision, Rick Garcia argues that Arizona will be an important turning point in the struggle for equality. On February 26th, Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have legally sanctioned discrimination in the state, allowing business owners to refuse to serve LGBT patrons based on their religious beliefs.
With the case of Brewer’s veto, Garcia explains that money talked. “Here you have a governor who is not known to be open to gays,” says Garcia. “She knew that she could possibly lose a future Super Bowl or businesses like Apple. This wasn’t a moral conviction that equality is the right thing to do. It was a good decision economically.” Garcia argues that LGBT workers are more likely go to states and cities where they know that they won’t be discriminated against because they’re gay.
Focusing on economics of equality isn’t a new strategy. Garcia says that it’s something that LGBT activists have known for years. “I think one of the most powerful tools that gays and their allies have is the business community, which can put pressure on legislators and governors,” states Garcia. “You have to have a strong relationship with business leaders, because when the economic imperative is on our side, we win.”
Jim Bennett hopes that the push for marriage equality means that Congress is more likely to vote favorably on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexuality in the workplace. “It’s hard to imagine a situation where you have marriage in a state, but if a guy puts out a picture of his partner on his desk, he could get fired because there’s no protection in the workplace,” says Bennett. “It’s a natural extension.”
4. Anti-gay policies in Russia and Uganda have reminded Americans of the cost of discrimination.
Along with the financial costs of discrimination, the media coverage of anti-gay policies in Russia and Uganda have offered a harrowing reminder of the human costs of hate. A video released in February from Human Rights Watch showed anti-gay abuse on the streets in Russia. A statement from the advocacy organization underscored the severity of the issue: “Victims in cities including Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk told [us] they were attacked in public places, abducted, beaten, harassed, threatened and psychologically abused.” Many were afraid to report these incidents to authorities, fearing further harassment.
Rick Garcia said that this brutality recalls the bigotry LGBT people in the U.S. faced up through the 1960s and early 1970s, when anti-gay violence was often met with a shrug. Garcia highlights the media’s indifference to the Upstairs Lounge fire of 1973, which killed 32 people at a New Orleans gay bar in an act of arson. “If a gay bar was raided or burned to the ground, the thought was: ‘Who cares? They got what they deserved,'” says Garcia.
Compared with memories of that violent era, or what’s going on right now in Uganda – where a tabloid recently published a list of the country’s “top homos,” urging for their murder – marriage equality suddenly seems less controversial. “Talk about a first-world problem,” says Garcia. “Sometimes I think, ‘We’re talking about bakers making wedding cakes.’ But you have to put the two issues together: If we don’t fight, we could go back to those days where if you were beaten up and you went to the police, you got beat up again.”
5. LGBT couples are making a difference by standing up and being counted.
In the 1970s, civil rights leader Harvey Milk urged LGBT people to fight bigotry by coming out. “I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let that world know,” said Milk. “That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine…Only that way will we start to achieve our rights.”
Garcia believes that visibility – the sheer act of allowing yourself to be counted – is what’s winning the battle for marriage equality. “The most powerful political act for gay people is to be out and open,” argues Garcia. “You can’t find anyone in this day and age who doesn’t know someone that’s gay.” Putting a face on the issue makes people a lot harder to discriminate against, especially when that person is your friend, neighbor or loved one.
Of course, even as marriage equality picks up speed, the fight for full equality and respect is still going on. Jim Bennett tells the story of a gay couple who recently shared a cab coming back from a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. On a rainy night, the taxi driver ejected the two men for kissing in the back of the cab, leaving them to walk home in the downpour. Bennett argues that there’s a strength in knowing you’re protected by the law, no matter your marital status. “We want equality for all,” he says, “whether you’re married or single.”