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'No turning back' after US gay marriage rulings

6 min

After two Supreme Court decisions marked a historic step forward for gay marriage in the US, LGBT Americans and their allies celebrated and speculated about the next step. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at a movement with momentum.


June 27 will go down as a historic day for gay rights in the US.

A duo of landmark Supreme Court decisions legalised same-sex marriage in California and granted gay married couples access to hundreds of federal benefits – related to employment, taxes, and immigration, for example – that had long been denied to them.

A look at the gay rights “landscape” today reveals the sweeping changes the past few years have seen.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 13 states, plus Washington DC (a considerable chunk of the country, accounting for 30% of the US population). Hypothetically, any gay couple in America can get married and have all state and federal benefits if the couple moves to a state in which gay marriage is legal.

Gay marriage is still banned in 37 states – a fact the Supreme Court chose not to challenge in their rulings -- and a large majority of Republican elected officials opposes it.

A lesbian couple in San Francisco reacted to the Supreme Court rulings on Wednesday.
A lesbian couple in San Francisco reacted to the Supreme Court rulings on Wednesday.

But nothing seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of gay Americans and their supporters on Wednesday, as they flooded the streets of cities like New York and Los Angeles to celebrate the legal victories.

“Gay Americans might not have gotten everything they asked for, but they sure got a lot,” summarised Jonathan Rauch, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution and expert on gay issues and public policy.

That assessment was echoed in the reaction of LGBT advocates across the country.

“This is a chapter in the history books,” offered David Badash, gay rights activist and founder of The New Civil Rights Movement, a website for LGBT-related news. “Both the actual rulings and they way we got here will be studied for decades.”

The next step?

As gay Americans, their allies, and high-ranking Democrats cheered the Supreme Court decisions, there was also speculation about the impact the rulings would have on the fight to extend marriage equality to all fifty states.

“Given that the majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, there is no turning back,” Badash said. “State marriage equality efforts will now ramp up and we'll see more overturning of bans on same-sex marriage and many more states quickly adopting equality measures.”

Marriage equality activists are closely watching Illinois, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Nevada as some of the next states that could legalise gay marriage.

But most political analysts agree that it will take time to reach the magic 50 number. “We’ll have a continued argument for probably a decade or so before it will be a 50-state thing,” Rauch predicted. “A few states will cross over soon. But then you hit a harder, more conservative batch of states. You’ll need to get the state legislature or the state’s population onboard.”

On the other hand, Rauch pointed out, there may be another Supreme Court case in the next few years which could result in a ruling that marriage is a constitutional right that everyone, everywhere in America is entitled to.

“The Supreme Court basically said [in their rulings on Wednesday] that if you want to do something that singles gay people out in any way, you better have a really good reason,” Rauch said. “That indicates that in the future, the court will probably be making decisions that help gay people.”

The Obama factor

With polls showing a decisive majority of Americans backing gay marriage, increasing numbers of officials from both parties endorsing marriage equality, and gay celebrities -- in TV, film, and even sports and rap music – becoming more visible, “the country has clearly passed the tipping point on gay marriage”, Rauch noted.

Having the most gay-friendly president ever to occupy the White House has played a role, too. Even before endorsing same-sex marriage in May 2012, Obama had already declared DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman at the federal level) unconstitutional in 2011 and ordered the Department of Justice to stop defending it in court – a “pivotal” move, according to Badash.

“While the decision not to defend certain laws in federal courts has been made by several other presidents, the decision [to no longer defend DOMA] was a warning that guided many other policy decisions and put [DOMA] on the path to the Supreme Court,” Badash said.

Rauch agreed, noting that “Supreme Court justices are well aware that the president is part of the larger change in public sentiment, and that might have had an effect on their rulings”.

At the same time, Rauch argued, Obama’s support for gay marriage and the pace at which states have been legalising it may have actually had the opposite effect on the court’s thinking – which would explain why there was no ruling declaring a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in all 50 states. “The fact that Obama endorsed marriage equality and the public is behind him might have made the justices think: ‘The country is changing without us, so we don’t need to step in in a huge way.’”

‘Quiet’ conservative opposition

Meanwhile, the reaction of conservatives to Wednesday’s decisions was mostly muted, with top Congressional Republican John Boehner issuing the following statement: “A robust national debate over marriage will continue in the public square, and it is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.”

Emphasising that the same-sex marriage decisions should proceed on the state level – and therefore, implicitly, not on the federal level -- is a way for Republicans to bring their anti-gay-marriage position down a notch in intensity, Rauch explained. “It looks like Republicans will be pretty quiet and move on,” Rauch said. “They know they’re in a losing position on this issue, and they’re looking for a way out.”

According to Karlyn Bowman, a political analyst at right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute, the Republican party is indeed in the process of softening its stance on the issue. “Support for gay marriage legalisation will continue to grow [among Republicans],” she said. “Perhaps slowly, but it will grow over time.”

Recent polling data supports Bowman’s hunch: an ABC/Washington Post survey in April found that 52% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents under 50 years old are in favour of same-sex marriage.

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