Same-Sex Marriage Now Legal in 32 States and Washington, D.C.

Same-Sex Marriage Now Legal in 32 States and Washington, D.C.

Check out this brief overview of the history of same-sex marriage in the US to find out how we got where we are and where are we headed regarding this issue.

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.
updated September 19, 2020 · 4 min read

As recently as half-century ago, the idea that same-sex marriage would be legal anywhere in the United States was crazy talk. As we near the end of 2014, however, same sex couples have the freedom to marry in over half of U.S. states as well as in Washington, D.C.

Thirty-two states, including some of the country’s most populous like California, New York and Illinois, allow gay marriage, affording same sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual married couples.

How did we get to where we are and where are we headed regarding same-sex marriage in the U.S.? Read on.

The Road to the Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage

As detailed by Michael J. Klarman in one of the most comprehensive same-sex marriage articles to date, the fight for marriage equality was led by the LGBT community on the heels of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. At that time, many homosexual couples began finding themselves facing complicated legal questions from hospital visitation rights to inheritance rights, which acted as a spark to begin the freedom to marry debate.

Throughout the 1990s, the gay marriage movement saw positive signs in both Hawaii and Vermont, where state courts ruled that outlawing same-sex marriage discriminated against such couples. Vermont’s legislature even passed a law creating the new legal status of “civil unions” for same-sex couples.

On the flip side, however, the mid-1990s also saw the passing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which, among other things, defined marriage as between a man and woman. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor repealed the section of DOMA defining marriage as between a man and a woman, opening the way for more states to sanction same-sex marriage.

Massachusetts: The First State to Legalize Same Sex Marriage

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage in the U.S. In Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage while explicitly rejecting the concept of civil unions as “second-class citizenship”; same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts when the state legislature failed to take any action regarding the decision within 180 days.

Overwhelming public support in Massachusetts for the ruling meant there was never a serious movement dedicated toward overturning the decision in the Bay State, but it did set into a motion a nationwide discussion that is still going on today. Indeed, in the years following Goodridge, several U.S. states, including Michigan, Ohio and Texas, passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

Closer Look at Same-Sex Marriage States

Massachusetts’ fellow New England states have since followed its lead in the legalization of same-sex marriage—Connecticut in 2008 via court decision; Vermont in 2009; New Hampshire in 2010 and Rhode Island in 2013 by act of their state legislatures; and Maine in 2012 by popular vote. Iowa was also one of the early states to permit gay marriage through a court ruling in 2009.

Washington, D.C. legalized gay marriage in 2010, while New York’s state legislature passed a law permitting same sex marriage in 2011. Washington’s electorate voted in favor of a gay marriage measure in 2012.

The provisions in the remaining states that allow same-sex couples to marry became active in either 2013 or 2014:

  • Alaska (Oct. 17, 2014/court decision)
  • Arizona (Oct. 17, 2014/court decision)
  • California (June 28, 2013/court decision)
  • Colorado (Oct. 7, 2014/court decision)
  • Delaware (July 1, 2013/state legislature)
  • Hawaii (Dec. 2, 2013/state legislature)
  • Idaho (Oct. 13, 2014/court decision)
  • Illinois (June 1, 2014/state legislature)
  • Indiana (Oct. 6, 2014/court decision)
  • Maryland (Jan. 1, 2013/popular vote)
  • Minnesota (Aug. 1, 2013/state legislature)
  • Nevada (Oct. 9, 2014/court decision)
  • New Jersey (Oct. 21, 2013/court decision)
  • New Mexico (Dec. 19, 2013/court decision)
  • North Carolina (Oct. 10, 2014/court decision)
  • Oklahoma (Oct.6, 2014/court decision)
  • Oregon (May 19, 2014/court decision)
  • Pennsylvania (May 20, 2014/court decision)
  • Utah (Oct. 6, 2014/court decision)
  • Virginia (Oct. 6, 2014/court decision)
  • West Virginia (Oct. 9, 2014/court decision)
  • Wisconsin (Oct. 6, 2014/court decision)
  • Wyoming (Oct. 21, 2014/court decision)

It is worth noting that the most populous state in the country, California, has permitted same-sex marriages since July 1, 2013—this after a brief five-month period during 2008 when gay marriage ceremonies were also allowed.

California’s history with the same-sex marriage debate involves the now infamous Prop. 8, a voter-approved state constitutional ban on gay marriage that had passed in 2008 but was overturned by a district court judge in 2010. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision and then, in 2013, on the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on DOMA, the highest court in the land found that the Prop. 8 supporters lacked legal standing to appeal the lower court’s decision regarding the gay marriage ban.

The Future of Same Sex Marriage notes that Kansas, Montana and South Carolina all have federal appellate rulings in favor of same-sex marriage, “meaning the path is cleared for the freedom to marry there.” Moreover, another eight states have lower court rulings in favor of gay marriage that are currently on appeal. In five other states (Texas, Michigan, Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas), same-sex marriage bans have been struck down by courts.

With the overwhelming trend toward the legalization of same-sex marriages across the country, it’s likely that such unions will eventually be explicitly permitted in all fifty states. This is especially probable in the face of some same-sex marriage facts such as the statistic that “a record-high 59 percent” of Americans in a 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll said they supported same-sex marriage.

It would seem the only question left to debate at this point is how long it will take the remaining states to catch up to the rest of the country on this issue.

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Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

About the Author

Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

Freelance writer and editor Michelle Kaminsky, Esq. has been working with LegalZoom since 2004. She earned a Juris Docto… Read more