Same-sex marriage became legal in nine states this year, bringing the tally to 18 states and the District of Columbia. In five of those states, legislatures were the agents of change. The people or their representatives voting to end discrimination is more likely to result in widespread acceptance than are judicial rulings, no matter how enlightened.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down the most odious parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which barred federal benefits to same-sex couples, and the justices ruled against Proposition 8, which had banned same-sex unions in California. The court did not proclaim same-sex marriage to be a constitutional right. But its decisions have have informed many other legal proceedings that will likely bring the question before the court again in a couple of years. The Utah case is one of those. Encouraged by the Supreme Court rulings, meanwhile, more and more state and local officials are arguing that same-sex marriage restrictions in their jurisdictions violate the federal Constitution.
Yet, save the late addition of Utah, where the fate of the judicial decree remains uncertain, every state in which same-sex marriage or civil unions are legal voted for President Obama in the past two elections. That’s also true of most of the states on gay rights campaigners’ target lists for the next few years. Many red states, including North Carolina last year, have enshrined gay marriage bans in their constitutions, a difficult obstacle to overcome.
In other words, it’s still unclear whether the wave of equality that has swept from state to state over the past two years is national or regional, bound to crash ineffectually on more conservative parts of the country. The Supreme Court stopped short of declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right — which is the logical and moral outcome — in large part because a more ambitious ruling might provoke a nasty and counterproductive backlash. As long as the justices feel that way, a nationally consistent right to marriage will probably be elusive, even if more judges, like the one in Utah, choose to be more daring. Meanwhile, Congress has yet to guarantee workplace equality. And countries from Russia to Uganda to India to Australia went backward in their stances on gay rights this year.
We should celebrate that millions of Americans, including President Obama, are “evolving” on this issue. But further progress can’t be assumed. In 2014, as in every prior year, the fight for equality will take hard organizing and patient persuasion.