The Early History of Same Sex Marriage in the United States

Gay couple holding handsSame-sex marriage is now recognized by a majority of American states, as well as the federal government, but it’s been a long, hard fight. The legal battle for equal rights began more than 40 years ago. Here’s an overview of some of the major legal victories and defeats along the way.

  • 1971—Two University of Minnesota gay student activists apply for a marriage license. The request is denied and they file suit. The district court dismisses their action and it is appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refuses to hear the case, allowing the lower court ruling to stand (denying the license request).
  • 1993—At a national gay rights march in Washington, D.C., a mass gay wedding ceremony takes place.
  • 1998—The Supreme Court of Hawaii holds that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause. The Hawaii legislature responds by passing a new law that defines marriage to include only unions between a man and a woman.
  • 2003—The U.S. Supreme Court holds a “homosexual conduct” statute in Texas unconstitutional, thereby invalidating same-sex sodomy laws in 13 states.
  • 2003—The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court holds that denying a marriage license request by a same-sex couple is unconstitutional. The state begins issuing same-sex marriage licenses in 2004.
  • 2004—Officials in five different states—California, Oregon, New York, New Mexico and New Jersey—issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, but are ordered to cease and desist by either the courts or the state attorney general.
  • 2008—The Supreme Court of California rules that same-sex marriage cannot be banned under the state’s constitution. In response, a Proposition is placed on the ballot and passes, making same sex marriage illegal. Similar constitutional amendments are approved in Florida and Arizona.
  • 2008—Connecticut’s Supreme Court strikes down a state statute banning gay marriage. The state legislature passes a gender-neutral marriage law the following year.
  • 2009—Courts in Iowa and the District of Columbia invalidate laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. The Vermont legislature legalizes gay marriage without a court battle, but the Governor vetoes the bill. The legislature overrides his veto. Maine’s governor signs a similar law, but it is repealed. New Hampshire and Rhode Island enact gay marriage laws.

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