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  • Todd Harper

History of Same-Sex Marriage in the US

LGBTQ+ and BIPOC Pride Flag

Woodland Events is celebrating Pride Month! All of our blog posts this month will be focused on celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and the fact that same-sex marriage has now been legal nationwide for five years this month!

However, given the current circumstances in our nation surrounding the murder of George Floyd, we’re also recognizing that pride month was established in part to commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969, a movement against oppressive policing, led by a black transgender woman named Marsha P. Johnson.

This isn’t just a month to celebrate. It’s a month to remember the many lives lost throughout this civil rights journey, to peacefully protest the inequities and injustice experienced by minorities, including people of color and LGBTQ+ people, and to raise political awareness of the ongoing issues faced by our global, national, and local communities.


I want to kick off pride this year by just sharing a brief history of same-sex marriage in the United States. The word brief is important here. There is so much to unpack, and so many tangents to explore, and I absolutely encourage readers to dive into that research. Today, I'll equip you with a starting place.

You might ask, “But Todd, you’re a wedding planner married to a woman! Why are you qualified to tell us about LGBTQ+ history?” Well, about ten years ago, just as same-sex marriage was becoming one of the most discussed political topics in the nation, I was a Psychology major researching housing discrimination against gay men, dipping my toes in facts and figures related to the rest of the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement at large. During this research, I was supervised by Professor Gregory Herek, who at the time, was testifying as an expert witness in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the landmark case that overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage and was ultimately brought to the US Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriages nationwide.

Ready? Let’s dive in!

Before 1970

1920: Being gay is illegal. Even presenting or dressing as a non-normative gender could result in an arrest. And if you are a restaurant or bar owner that serves gay people (even if you're not necessarily a "gay bar"), you are in real danger of being shut down. I won’t unpack all of it here, but this remained true in many states through the 1970s (60 years for anyone counting) and resulted in thousands of arrests nationwide.

1950’s: Being gay is considered a pathological disease.

1969: The Stonewall riots mark what many consider the start of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. (I would argue it actually began in 1950 with the Mattachine Society, but Stonewall was certainly an important milestone that needed to happen to gain traction for the movement).

Police in riot gear advancing toward LGBTQ and allied activists in the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

1970 - 1979

1970 - 1972: The question of the legality of same-sex marriage begins right here in Minnesota, dontcha know, when two men are denied a marriage license. Following several rounds of legal hearings, a federal precedent is set that states are not bound to perform or recognize same-sex marriages.

1973: The American Psychological Association finally defines homosexuality as a normal variation of human sexuality and removes it as a disorder from the DSM. Yet, in several states, homosexuality will continue to be illegal.

1980 - 1989

1980: Ronald Reagan enters the presidential office on a “traditional family values” platform.

1981: The first case of AIDS is found in a gay man in LA. First referred to as “GRID” (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) by the media, panic arises that people might catch it just by being in proximity to a gay person or using public restrooms. This, paired with Reagan’s platform, means a dark decade for the LGBTQ+ community, and a hard stop to much of the progress that has been made toward marriage equality.

1986: Reagan makes his first public mention of AIDS and calls it an epidemic. It took him five years of diagnoses, 20,000 lost lives, and at least a year of widespread public panic and fear of contagion to do this.

1989: Partially a response to the AIDS epidemic, and in an attempt to normalize homosexuality in American culture, an explosion of gay men and lesbians come out to their friends and family. Polls show that this makes rather a significant step toward cultural acceptance.

1990 - 1999

1992: For the first time in history, gay issues are at the center of political debate in an election year as Bill Clinton pledges to fight discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

1996: The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is signed into law by President Clinton, legally defining the word ‘marriage’ as a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ’spouse’ as only the person of the opposite sex of their husband or wife.


Confused about why Clinton, who entered his presidency as an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, would sign this in the first place? Check out this article.


2000 - 2009

Man holding sign reading "Victory!!! Love Wins" as two men kiss behind him celebrating Massachusetts history making decision to legalize same-sex marriage.

2004: Massachusetts becomes the first US state to legalize same-sex marriage. Because of DOMA, these marriages are not recognized at the federal level, but are embraced at the state level.

2008: California has rather a complicated year. Same-sex marriage is legalized by the state’s supreme court in May, becoming the second state to legalize same-sex marriage, but then in November, the people vote in favor of Proposition 8, overturning the legalization. Marriages officiated between May and November remain valid.

2010 - 2019

2010: Judge Walker overturns California’s Proposition 8, ruling it unconstitutional, beginning a long journey to the US supreme court.

“For the hundreds of thousands of Californians in gay and lesbian households who are managing their day-to-day lives, this decision affirms the full legal protections and safeguards I believe everyone deserves." - Governor Arnold Scwarzenegger, just seven years after stating he believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

2010: President Obama, formerly against same-sex marriage (and for civil unions), states that his views are evolving.

“As you say, I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage. But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine.” - President Barack Obama

2011: DOMA is rejected by the Obama administration.

2012: President Obama becomes the first sitting United States President to publicly support same-sex marriage.

"At a certain point I've just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married." - President Barack Obama

2013: The US Supreme Court rules California’s Prop 8 unconstitutional, thereby re-legalizing same-sex marriage in California and setting a new federal precedent for all states; The Supreme Court also declares Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional, requiring the federal government to recognize all same-sex marriages;

2013: Minnesota becomes the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage.

2015: The US Supreme Court rules that all states must recognize and perform same-sex marriages. Marriages start immediately in all states except in Louisiana and Mississippi (it took them 2 days and 5 days, respectively, to comply with the federal ruling).

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were...It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves...They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” - Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges
Pride flags are waved outside the United States supreme court shortly after Justice Anthony Kennedy rules same-sex marriage will be legal nationwide.
President Obama's white house lit in the colors of the rainbow following the supreme court's history making decision to legalize same sex marriage.


2020: According to data collected by UCLA in June 2017, over 547,000 same-sex marriages had been performed in the United States. I would estimate there have been at least 250,000 more since then, so we may be close to 1,000,000 happily married LGBTQ+ couples!!

This may be the history of same-sex marriage in the United States. However, the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement is far from over. We’re still fighting against workplace and housing discrimination, gay conversion therapy, restrictions on gay men giving blood, youth homelessness, and LGBTQ+ suicide, among many other civil rights issues. We must continue working together to end these diseases to our society.

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