Has the U.S. reached ‘marriage equality?’ Not yet.

June 30, 2013
University students Mollie Wagoner and Sharon Burk celebrate with supporters of gay and lesbian rights outside the Supreme Court Wednesday. (EPA/Michael Reynolds)
University students Mollie Wagoner and Sharon Burk celebrate with supporters of gay and lesbian rights outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday. (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

A couple years ago, it was fairly trendy for straight celebrity couples to delay their wedding plans in support of LGBT rights. Actors Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard have been engaged since 2010 but have held off on getting married  to “stand up for what they believe in” regarding same-sex marriage. Bell even called a straight weddings “tacky” in light of the fact that gays and lesbians can't marry in many places in the United States.

Following last week’s Supreme Court rulings, a flurry of excitement spread among gay right advocates -- from D.C. to the rest of the nation. Bell proposed to Shepard over Twitter. Shepard accepted, rejoicing, "DOMA is dead. Prop 8 is dead. Now let's bring my big, gay marriage to @IMKristenBell to Life!!!!"

But the Defense of Marriage Act is not “dead” and neither is the underlying question in regards California's Proposition 8. While a key part of DOMA was ruled unconstitutional, the law still exists and will require congressional efforts to repeal it to make it truly dead. And though it’s likely that same-sex marriage will resume in California, Prop 8 was not “killed” by the Supreme Court; rather it was ignored because a majority of justices ruled on the question of standing rather than its actual merits.

Even putting aside the Court's ruling last week, it's worth remembering that 29 states still have a ban on same-sex marriage.

“What happened [at the Supreme Court] is highly historic,” said Tina Fetner, a sociology professor at McMaster University, “But lesbian and gay activists aren’t winning everything they fight for. In fact, it’s probably the other way around.”

Fetner, who conducts research on sexuality and social movements, is impressed by the rate of change in public opinion on same-sex marriage. But to her, same-sex marriage is far from being implemented on a nationwide level. Despite the DOMA ruling, Fetner says there’s a gap between where LGBT activists are and where many want to be.

“For example, there’s no anti-discrimination legislation against lesbian and gay people on a national level,” she said. “There’s been an executive order to protect employees of the federal government but nothing more than that.”

As an example of how little has changed on the federal level, Fetner likes to bring up how the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that prohibits “employee discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity” fares on Capitol Hill. It’s been proposed almost every year for the past two decades. The response? It dies in committee almost every year.

In response to last week’s decisions, Amy Stone, a sociology and anthropology professor at Trinity University, adds, “Things are going to get very complicated very soon.”

To Stone, an analysis of what’s to come involves “tracking the values of states.” Although almost three in four Americans believe that same-sex marriage is inevitable, state priorities still differ, leaving both sides of the issue scrambling to gain ground in the remaining states that either ban it or have yet to clarify what constitutes marriage.

Stone predicts that the LGBT movement will continue a relatively new tactic of emphasizing the emotional side of the issue.

“It used to be about rights,” she said. “But that’s not how most people think about marriage. Most people think about love and commitment. So now when activists have face-to-face conversations with voters and politicians, they’ve focused on the emotional side rather than the legal side.”

Same-sex marriage activists have also borrowed an idea from their opponents, tapping leaders of faith communities to speak to their congregations about equal marriage rights. In response, the conservative opposition has sought to strengthen their ties in the evangelical Christian community.

“I would consider this more recent wave of activism as a way to expand activism that’s been going on,” Fetner said. “It seems to be moving beyond the evangelical community to the more mainline community.”

The fight for the remaining middle is one that might see its biggest battles in the next couple legislative terms. Keep an eye on New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, Indiana and Iowa -- all of which may see fights over gay marriage in their state legislatures sometime soon.

Ruth Tam is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthetam.
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Chris Cillizza · June 29, 2013