Long struggle, quick endgame as marriage equality becomes law of the land

The crowd celebrates outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday June 26, 2015, after the court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the US.

The crowd celebrates outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday June 26, 2015, after the court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the US. Jacquelyn Martin, AP

The crowd celebrates outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday June 26, 2015, after the court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the US.Jacquelyn Martin, AP

The crowd celebrates outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday June 26, 2015, after the court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the US.

Back in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a law stipulating that the federal government would not recognize marriages between same-sex couples. On Friday night, the White House was illuminated with rainbow colors in celebration of the Supreme Court ruling legalizing such marriages in every state of the nation.

For gay rights activists, the two decades between those moments were marked by a dramatic mix of setbacks and victories.

As recently as 2004 there was widespread despair among proponents as voters in 13 states approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. At that time, some activists questioned whether marriage equality was a realistic goal. Others, while wary of appearing too optimistic, suggested gay marriage might take hold by 2020.

“In that climate, it sounded ambitious and bold, but it rallied a critical mass of leaders to believe maybe it was attainable,” said Evan Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry that played a key role in developing the campaign’s strategies.

That once audacious timetable proved to be overcautious. As more gay people came out of the closet, more of their relatives and acquaintances became supportive of gay rights. Popular television shows such as “Will and Grace” and “Modern Family” accelerated acceptance with empathetic portrayals of gay characters. Opinion polls over the past 10 years showed a huge shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage, which is now supported by 55 to 60 percent of Americans.

And over the past two years, a series of state and federal court rulings fueled hopes that victory was imminent.

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U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby alluded to the public opinion shift in his December 2013 ruling striking down Utah‘s ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional. “It is not the Constitution that has changed, but the knowledge of what it means to be gay or lesbian,” he wrote.

The 2004 election, which dismayed gay-rights activists at the time, “was a last rearguard effort in a losing fight,” according to Tobias Barrington Wolff, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“The progress that followed built on victories in legislatures, victories in courts, and on the growing public consensus that there is no good reason to treat LGBT people as second-class citizens,” he said in an email Saturday. “That consensus was not imposed by judges; rather, it helped to educate judges and make visible the claim of equal citizenship that the Supreme Court finally vindicated.”

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