The Journey to Same-Sex Marriage: How progress was won through America’s state legislatures


Just five years ago, on a sunny morning flooded by a sea of waving pride flags, love prevailed.

This article was originally published in 2019 and was updated in 2020.

On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling making same-sex marriage the law of the land. The court ruled that under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, same-sex couples were guaranteed the fundamental right to be married. Through Obergefell v. Hodges, America cemented its place as the 21st country to legalize same-sex marriage.

However, the fight for same-sex marriage — and LGBTQ rights in general — began long before Obergefell in states across the country. From state courts to referendums, supporters fought tooth-and-nail for LGBTQ citizens to earn this basic civil right.

The journey to legalized gay marriage passed directly through America’s statehouses, and few milestones in our history illustrate so clearly how local elections can define how we live and love every day. Here’s how it happened (the good and the bad), and what’s next for LGBTQ rights.

The Progress

April 7, 2009 was an important day.

Before 2009, same-sex couples could only marry in a single state: Massachusetts. In its place, some states allowed “civil unions” and partnerships for gay couples. Civil unions did not offer the same rights and protections as marriage; same-sex couples in civil unions were excluded from their partner’s Social Security benefits, veterans’ benefits, health insurance and a range of other federal benefits that came with marriage. In short, the law didn’t allow two same-sex adults to be “married.”

Vermont’s legislature decided to act. The Green Mountain State had always been an early leader in gay rights — creating first-in-the-nation civil unions for gay couples, and including sexual orientation in hate crimes legislation in 1990 and in its anti-discrimination statute two years later.

And on April 7, 2009, Vermont legislators made the courageous decision to overturn the Republican governor’s veto and become the first state legislature to legalize same-sex marriage. New Hampshire shortly followed suit. Two years later, the governor of New York signed the Marriage Equality Act on June 24, 2011, solidifying the right to marry for thousands of New Yorkers.

Then a wave started: almost as a challenge to the Supreme Court, state legislatures went into action between 2012 and 2013. Washington’s state legislature began the charge that year, passing the bill swiftly through both chambers. Months later, voters finished the job by approving a referendum to legalize marriage in the state. That same year, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Civil Marriage Protection Act, which voters approved in the following election.

In 2013, organizers flooded their state capitals to legalize same-sex marriage. Those living in Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Illinois, and Hawaii received the right to marry from their state legislatures.

The Pushback

Unfortunately, the battle for marriage in the states was not always one toward progress — and Republican-led discrimination underscored the importance of who had won elections.

In the early 2000s, multiple states including Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, North Dakota, and Utah, passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as strictly between a man and a woman; others banned same-sex marriage entirely. This only added another barrier to same-sex couples, who now had to fight their state constitution to get married.

The anti-equality sentiment was pushed by leaders in the Republican Party who fought for the amendments at the federal and state levels, campaigning on blocking the LGBTQ community from this basic right. California was set to be one of the first states to legalize same-sex marriage in 2005, but the bill was vetoed by the Republican governor. And as late as 2012, Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey.

Because of state-level bans on same-sex marriage and subsequent court rulings upholding these bans, the ability for Americans to marry whomever they wished was a patchwork based solely on which state they happened to live in.

Then on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples could marry nationwide — opening the door for citizens living in the 13 states that had not recognized or had outright banned gay marriage. The Obergefell ruling ended the state-by-state approach to civil rights — finally, same-sex couples had the same right to marry as heterosexual couples everywhere in the country. That night, for the first time in history, the White House illuminated in rainbow — commemorating the adversity Jim Obergefell and countless other Americans had faced to marry who they loved.

What’s Next

But the right to marry did not end the fight for equality. For five years in a majority of states, you could marry your same-sex partner on Saturday and be fired for it on Monday morning. But on June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court issued another groundbreaking decision for LGBTQ equality, ruling that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act extends workplace anti-discrimination protections based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

We’ve always understood that progress moves in a pendulum and the pendulum still has further to swing. LGBTQ folks still face discrimination in education and housing, and the Trump administration issued a new rule just this month that would allow health care workers to deny care to transgender patients. LGBTQ citizens are under threat every day, especially Black trans women who are disproportionately victims of violence. In 28 states, there are no statewide laws explicitly banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity — all in places where Republicans control at least one chamber in the legislature.

We must ensure LGBTQ citizens get a seat at the table by electing them into office. Since Trump’s election, we’ve helped elect over 100 LGBTQ legislators into office — paving the way for a slate of legislation advancing LGBTQ rights.

Lawmakers in Maine, Colorado, New York, and Massachusetts joined 14 other states to ban the dangerous practice of conversion therapy for minors. Nevada, New Mexico and New York passed legislation reinforcing nondiscrimination against the LGBTQ community. And in February of 2020, the new blue Virginia legislature passed the Virginia Values Act, banning discrimination in employment, housing, credit, and public accommodations. By doing so, they became the first Southern state to enact protections for their LGBTQ community.

Progress only comes if we demand it. As we mark more than 51 years since the Stonewall Riots, we have to fight even harder to ensure equality for all. This is what Delegate Danica Roem, America’s first sitting openly transgender state legislator, had to say:

The fight for equality continues this November and beyond. Support state Democrats working to bring equality for all — no matter who they love or how they identify. Add a donation to help elect Democrats win elections at the state level all across the country.

This article was originally published in 2019 and was updated in 2020.