A Full Circle on Marriage

September 21st, 2011



In the fall of 1996, social conservatives in Washington, DC, pushed and passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman under federal law. It was signed—15 years ago this week—by a Democratic President who was considered the most gay-friendly in history. And its passage was meant to end the debate on marriage for gay couples once and for all. A decade and a half later, gay couples in six states and DC can marry, and more than a dozen other states provide civil unions or some other form of recognition for their relationships. What explains this fundamental shift?

First, public opinion has swung rapidly and remarkably in favor of gay couples. Support for allowing gay couples to marry has doubled since 1996, from 27 percent to 53 percent. This reflects a greater warming of Americans toward their gay and lesbian neighbors. Only 42 percent said they personally knew a gay person when DOMA passed, compared to 77 percent today. And in this case, familiarity did not breed contempt. Today, fully two-thirds of the country would use the word “family” to describe a gay couple with a child—in the DOMA days it was just 29 percent.

Second, the vitriol of the DOMA debate compelled reasonable people to start thinking about something that never occurred to most of them—allowing some legal construct for committed couples of the same gender. In 1996, no state had any form of legal relationship recognition for gay couples. Now, 19 states (plus D.C.) have laws ranging from marriage to domestic partnerships. When individual cities and towns are included, 143 million Americans now reside in a place where gay couples can form a legal bond—up from 13 million only 15 years ago. And these communities aren’t limited to the coasts—they have sprung up in Georgia, Missouri, Kansas, and Utah, reflecting a broad public consensus.

Third, gay relationships went mainstream in the workplace. Private employers seeking to recruit and retain high-skilled workers, as well as to appeal to a broad consumer market, found it beneficial to recognize their gay employees’ relationships. Even more telling, they suffered very little backlash for doing so. In the fifteen years since DOMA was passed, the number of Fortune 500 companies offering protections and benefits to gay employees and their partners has increased fifteen-fold, from 19 to 291.

Likewise, states followed suit. We’ve gone from 2 to 22 states (plus DC) that now recognize the relationships of gay public workers by covering their partners under employee benefits.  That includes unusual suspects like Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina.

Today, the politics around gay issues seem unrecognizable from the dark days only 15 years ago. This summer, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on repealing DOMA—an event that would have been a “can’t-miss” opportunity for derision, grandstanding, and possibly even attack ads from Republicans in years past. But this time, only one Republican Senator even showed up to speak (a second one stopped by briefly to enter a statement into the record). Just a handful of years ago, it would have been unthinkable that opponents would forego a chance to ridicule “gay marriage”—but things have changed on both sides of the aisle.

In the White House, we’ve gone from a gay-friendly President who signed DOMA into law to a President who refuses to defend that law in court. And for many politicians of both parties, gay equality and relationship recognition has gone from an issue to run from to a cause to run to. Most recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s role in allowing gay couples to marry in his state was seen as a shrewd move on the national political stage.

Our country has evolved with astonishing speed, and we are rapidly approaching a national consensus in support of recognizing the relationships of gay couples, including through marriage in many states. When DOMA was passed in 1996, opponents decried the gay-baiting and sinister motives of culture warriors bent on demonizing gays and lesbians. As it turns out, maybe we should thank them.