In 2004, George W. Bush won 72 percent of the vote in Utah, making it the most Republican state that year. In 2013, same-sex marriage was as legal in the state with the highest population of Mormons in the nation as it was in liberal havens like Amsterdam and San Francisco. There is a certain air of inevitability around the gay marriage debate. Even many of those in opposition to the right to marry (an aging and shrinking group) seem resigned to the fact that it won’t be long before marriage equality is law across the entire nation, not just in deep blue states like New York, Massachusetts, and uh, yeah, Utah. Contrast that to less than a decade ago, where George W. Bush made his opposition to gay marriage a central part of his winning campaign - even though his opponent didn’t even support it.
It’s only logical to ask the question, “What the heck happened?
The story is different in each state, but nationwide there’s no doubt that 2013 was a watershed year for gay rights, and was arguably one of the very last years in which the issue will even be up for debate. It’s rare for such a clean and decisive political victory to occur, but as the United States continues to shift dramatically leftward on this issue, it seems that 2013 may have really been the year where gay marriage support becomes not only a mainstream opinion, but an opinion of a clear majority. Throughout the year, same-sex marriage rights were granted in Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, California, New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico and even Utah. In some of these states, there was little conflict or fanfare, but in others - namely New Jersey, Illinois, and Utah - the process was prolonged and full of drama.
New Jersey was a clash between ambition and ideology. The Garden State is fairly strongly Democratic-leaning, despite its famous Republican governor. A Republican hasn’t won the state nationally since 1988, and both houses of the legislature - the State Senate and the General Assembly - have a Democratic majority. Getting a same-sex marriage bill through the legislature was easy, but getting it past Chris Christie wasn’t. It’s no secret that Gov. Christie has his eye on a bid for the Oval Office in 2016, and running in a Republican primary with the legalization of gay marriage under his watch was doubtlessly not his ideal situation. Christie quickly vetoed the bill once it got through the legislature. Democratic (and some Republican) politicians in the state began organizing a pushback to override Christie’s veto, but the courts stepped in first, with the New Jersey Superior Court ruling in favor of gay marriage proponents in an explosive case featuring a former attorney general who had served under Christie for the first two years of his term. Reading the tea leaves, Christie caved, and a year after the legislature first approved it, New Jersey joined the ranks of state with same-sex marriage, much to its Governor's dismay.
Illinois was stubborn. Despite the state’s overwhelming Democratic majority, the State House of Representatives saw a more balanced partisan ratio, along with a large number of moderate Blue Dog Democrats. Although few doubted whether the State Senate would approve of a marriage equality bill, the proposal’s fate in the House was so in doubt that the bill’s proponents repeatedly delayed bringing the item to a vote. Those delays allowed same-sex marriage proponents to embark on a large public image push aimed at increasing the pressure on the few crucial undecided House members to vote in favor of the bill. Governor Pat Quinn, eager to capitalize off of the post-victory excitement in his party, went as far as signing the bill on a desk of Abraham Lincoln’s.
Utah was a surprise. In 2004, voters in Utah were in favor of an Amendment to the state’s constitution that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Usually, those kind of numbers are not a sign of an environment that is very conducive to allowing same-sex marriage, and yet, in 2013, gay couples in Utah could be legally wedded. Of course, a policy like this does not get enacted in such a conservative bastion due to popular support - in 2011, just barely over a fourth of Utahns were supportive of same-sex marriage, while two-thirds were opposed to recognition. Instead, it was a court that ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, leading to a huge backlash across the state. On January 6 this year, the Supreme Court halted the first court’s ruling and suspended gay marriage ceremonies across the state, but proponents of marriage equality have vowed to fight on, and with a final court verdict possibly months or even a year away, it’s likely that the fights in Utah are nowhere near over.
Even though it’s fairly unlike that Rick Perry will be able to marry another man in his home state anytime soon (not that it would be very high on his to-do list anyhow), public support of same-sex marriage has been growing at an impressive pace, with no real signs of slowing down. Whether these changing national attitudes will be enough to bring about complete and total nationwide legalization any time soon is unknown, but at the very least, it does seem that the wave of gay marriage victories in 2013 is not likely to slow down next year.