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Gay Marriage, 1996/2013

By Andrew Belonsky

(Image courtesy GLAAD)

My mom always had a lot of gay friends. There was Mark and Jerry, Mike and Ed, and Big Jim and Little Jim, to name a few. They always came in pairs. I remember asking once if Mark and Jerry, the two I saw most and knew best, were married. My mother said, "No."

I asked why not, and my mother replied with no elaboration that two men couldn't get married. She didn't say it as if it were wrong or if it were right. It was just a fact, and I left it at that, taking this slight as indication that their relationship wasn't worth as much as those made by men and women. What a terrible lesson to learn.

That was probably around 1996. I was a detached high school freshman living in Cincinnati, Ohio, not yet seriously considering my future, though resigned to the fact that I was expected at least to marry a woman or be single. Being single seemed the most likely possibility.

Even as I saw a twinkle of recognition of myself in my mom's friends, I couldn't fully envision myself embracing what was then still popularly known as a "lifestyle." That term was thrown around a lot in 1996, the year the Supreme Court ruled that Colorado's Amendment 2, a law banning any town, ordinance or city from protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination, violated the U.S. Constitution. That was also the year that President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, an increasingly stale piece of legislation that the Supreme Court may very well overturn this year. That same court is today hearing oral arguments in an appeal challenging Proposition 8, the California law prohibiting same-sex marriage.

How different things would be if I were 15 today. I would probably already be out, or at least I hope I would be, and I hopefully wouldn't have accepted discrimination as reality. I like to think I would be on the streets, energized by injustice and youthful exuberance, fighting the good fight. But maybe I'd be home, too timid to get involved. Either way, I'd be seeing what's happening in Washington today and still know that things, to use a phrase popular today, do get better.

And regardless of what happens with these cases, whether the court rules in favor of California couples and leaves existing bans in place or toss them all out, American youth today are seeing the sea change happen right before their eyes. LGBT acceptance today aren't just about a character coming out on television, as welcome as that was when Ellen DeGeneres did in 1997 or as refreshing as it remains today, and they aren't just PSAs made by sports teams to fight bullying, though those too are nice. But LGBT acceptance today is more than kind words and brave actions. It's about goal-driven action and getting tangible results.

The idea of two men or two women marrying is not exotic and outlandish as it was in 1996, when it was so unbelievably misunderstood that the president of the United States banned the government from recognizing them. Gay relationships are no longer a sidebar or a novelty. They are the American dream of freedom and opportunity in living, breathing, loving form, and more people are seeing them for what they are.

The most recent CBS News poll found that 53% of Americans support marriage equality, a slim but growing majority. Even more, 58%, told the Washington Post and ABC News they back men marrying men and women marrying women. And just this week two U.S. Senators, Virginia's Mark Warner and Alaska's Mark Begich, both Democrats (update: add late addition Jon Tester and now you have three), changed course and came out for marriage equality and Republican Senator Rob Portman did the same earlier this month. He cited his gay son as inspiration for his policy shift.

Portman is the first and so far only sitting Republican Senator to support equal marriage rights, but he won't stand alone for long. Other lawmakers will have no choice but to align themselves with the majority of the nation or find themselves grappling for political survival in the years to come. Sure, some conservatives in deeply red states will hang on for a few years, but some day even the right will see the light, and the idea of banning marriage equality will seem as ridiculous to most people as allowing it did in 1996.

We've passed a tipping point on marriage equality, and while the final blow to institutionalized marriage discrimination may not come during the Supreme Court's June rulings and maybe not even next year, it will happen soon, and when it does, I'll be as giddy as a teenager.

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