We’ve come a long way from the
days when activists opposed to a constitutional amendment could
warn in horrified tones that it would
lead to legalized gay marriage. Today that amendment—the
long dead, but the Supreme Court is hearing
oral arguments in a couple of cases that could establish a
legal right to same-sex marriage based on clauses that were in the
A certain amount of amnesia surrounds this issue. At a time when
a National Journal reporter can casually
claim ;that in the ’80s same-sex marriage was “little more
than a thought experiment,” it’s worth remembering that for
countless people, same-sex marriage in the ’80s—and earlier—was a
day-to-day reality, even if the families they established didn’t
enjoy the same legal status as the families forged by
heterosexuals. The movement toward marital rights for gays and
lesbians didn’t begin with a bill or a thought experiment; it began
with ordinary couples who decided to marry whether or not the
government was going to recognize their union. ;As I wrote
two years ago,
Members of the same gender have
been coupling off for centuries, sometimes with ceremonies that
look rather marital to modern eyes. Here in America, gay
marriages predate the modern gay rights movement. Six years before
Stonewall, the 1963 book The Homosexual and his Society
described informal gay weddings where “all the formalities of
[a] legally certified and religiously sanctioned ceremony are aped
with the greatest of care.”…As gay life became more visible, so
did those permanent partnerships, and as social tolerance of
homosexuality grew, more people accepted the partners’ marriages as
real. In 1992, long before any state recognized gay marriage as a
legal right, Suzanne Sherman could
fill a big chunk of a book by interviewing gays who had married
and officiants who had blessed their unions. Such marriages were
eventually honored by institutions outside as well as inside the
gay community. By 1993, the list of companies that allowed domestic
partners of the same sex to share benefits included Microsoft,
Apple, HBO, Warner Bros., and Borders. By 2007, gay couples who
wanted to get married at Disneyland were
free to purchase the Fairy Tale Wedding package….
And so a social institution took hold: first among gays themselves,
then in the larger community and marketplace. Finally the
government took notice.
How did that evolution look in heterosexual America? Here’s a
“Dear Abby” letter from 1975, which some papers ran under the
Disgusted by He-Man’s Gay ‘Marriage’”:
DEAR ABBY: Our
tall, handsome, athletic son served four years in the Navy,
returned to civilian life and college, and “married” an undersized,
effeminite male hairdresser. We have no idea how to handle this
situation or our ambivalent feelings.
This “odd couple” came to visit us, and they want us to visit them.
They are inseparable and act out a peculiar husband-wife
relationship that is both bewildering and disturbing to us.
So far we have been polite, but what the dickens do you say to
friends and relatives? We can’t condone it.
We love this boy, but as his parents we feel torn and hypocritical
to say the least.
Abby’s brief reply: “You owe friends and relatives no
explanation, so don’t feel obligated to offer any. Since your son’s
lifestyle bewilders and disturbs you, either learn to accept it or
quit seeing him.”
Seven years later, Abby was more willing to push a parent toward
accepting a gay son’s relationship. In a
1982 letter, “Pennsylvania Mom” wrote:
DEAR ABBY: Two weeks ago I received a
telephone call from my youngest son (29) who has been living in San
Francisco for the last three years.
He told me that a priest had just married him to his friend,
Jerry—another guy. He said he has never been happier in his life,
and he asked me to tell everyone in the family about it.
So far I haven’t told anybody because I’m not sure how some of our
relatives will take it. For my part, I love my son, and all I want
is for him to be happy.
Abby, is marriage between two men legal in California? This is a
new one for me. And I would like to know what kind of “priest”
would perform this kind of ceremony.
Abby replied: “Congratulations. You haven’t lost a son, you’ve
gained another son.” She went on to explain that while gay
marriages “are not legal anywhere,” some clergy do “perform such
Some couples did try to get their marriages recognized by the
state. Most famously, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell applied for
a marriage license in Minnesota in 1970; in the ensuing case,
v. Nelson, the state Supreme Court ruled that the men did
not have a constitutional right to marry each other, declaring that
marriage’s status as “a union of man and woman, uniquely involving
the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old
as the book of Genesis.” The U.S. Supreme Court refused to take on
the case, though some legal scholars thought the petitioners
deserved a hearing.
Baker and McConnell weren’t alone. A county clerk in Boulder
issued marriage licenses to six same-sex couples in 1975, though
Colorado’s ;attorney general later ruled them invalid. (One of
the Boulder unions was between an American and an Australian. When
the latter tried to use his marriage license to establish legal
residency in the United States, a letter from the Immigration and
informed him, “You have failed to establish that a bona fide
marital relationship can exist between two faggots.”) In 1983 the
Pennsylvania courts heard an early
gay divorce dispute. One man, citing a 1970 ceremony, claimed
that he and his ex were common-law spouses and asked for alimony.
His partner denied that their relationship had been a proper
marriage. The court sided with the second groom.
The topic turned up in the legislative and executive branches,
too. In 1977, Florida Gov. Reubin Askew signed a bill to
ban gay marriage. Generally speaking, you don’t prohibit
something unless you think there’s a good chance it will otherwise
And yet the
couples kept marrying, and with time more and more people accepted
their unions as legitimate. That tolerance eventually took hold in
governing bodies more powerful than a Colorado county clerk’s
office, and now the U.S. Supreme Court is tackling the issue. If
the justices rule ;in favor of marriage equality, the history
books will call it a landmark decision. And those history books
will be right. But let’s not forget all the events that came before
the Supremes were willing to entertain the issue, and before any of
today’s political leaders ;took a stand.