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Timeline: Same-Sex Marriage and Related Issues in America

Education World provides a nearly two decades-long timeline that chronicles a sampling of legal and cultural changes related to acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) individuals, same-sex couples, and the civil rights-related issue of same-sex marriage. Timeline items should be considered snapshots and are not meant to represent the full breadth of these very complex issues.same-sex marriage

The timeline begins in 1996—the same year Education World was founded—with the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and ends with the Supreme Court ruling that same sex marriages are legal in all 50 states. The timeline is useful for classroom discussions centered around the following questions:

  • Between 1996 and 2015, what has changed in American society in terms of acceptance of LGBT individuals, views of same-sex couples, and laws relevant to same-sex marriage?
  • Is it likely that same-sex marriage has been—and will continue to be—a polarizing (dividing) issue for Americans?


Defense of Marriage Act Becomes Law

President Bill Clinton signs DOMA into law with overwhelming support from both houses of Congress, creating a federal definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. This means that same-sex marriages performed in states that allow them are not recognized at the federal level. Section 3 of DOMA indicates that spouses in same-sex marriages do not receive federal recognition in terms of insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, immigration, and the filing of joint tax returns. 


Ellen DeGeneres Comes Out

Then the star of the popular sitcom “The Ellen Show,” comedian Ellen DeGeneres stuns audiences by choosing to reveal her sexual orientation within the context of her show. She comes out in primetime on national television, spurring a negative media frenzy. Shortly thereafter, her show is canceled, and she falls into a depression over her faltering career and the stress of the ordeal. DeGeneres would later go on to host the popular daytime talk show “The Ellen Degeneres Show” in 2003, and marry actress Portia de Rossi in 2008.


Matthew Shepard Murder Spurs Hate-Crime Legislation

The brutal killing of gay teen Matthew Shepard becomes a rallying point for the rights of LGBT individuals. It touches off a movement to label similar attacks as "hate crimes" and to mandate more severe punishments for perpetrators of such crimes. Following Shepard’s death, President Bill Clinton urges Congress to expand federal hate crime law to apply to attacks based on sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is finally signed by President Obama in 2010.

preventing gay suicide

Trevor Project Begins Addressing Suicide Risk for LGBT Youth

In addition to operating the only national crisis lifeline for LGBT teens and young adults, Trevor offers unique suicide prevention services to youth in digital spaces, including counseling via instant message through TrevorChat and TrevorSpace, the largest online social network specifically for LGBT young people.


Marriage Equality USA Founded

The organization is a volunteer-driven national grassroots organization whose mission is “to secure legally recognized civil marriage equality for all, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity, at the state and federal level through grassroots organizing, education, action and partnerships.”


Tony Perkins Heads Family Research Council

Perkins, a former Louisiana legislator, authors the nation’s first “covenant marriage” law, which passes in 1997 (When a couple opts for a covenant marriage, they agree to waive their right to the no-fault divorce. In the event that the marriage does fail, only adultery, abuse, abandonment or a lengthy separation will allow a divorce to take place). Upon becoming FRC president six years later, Perkins embarks on the following mission: “At a time of global political uncertainty where foundational institutions are endangered as never before, where marriage is undermined and human life itself is being redefined, leaders must stand strong in the pulpits as well as the halls of power.”


Seven States Pass Same-Sex Marriage Bans

Eight states propose bans on same-sex marriage, and seven of those states (Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin) pass them.


California Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage; Proposition 8 Later Reverses Law

Proposition 8
This map shows how various California
counties voted on Proposition 8.

California officially legalizes same-sex marriage in June 2008, overturning a previous ban. A few months later, a legal opposition named Proposition 8 is raised. The proposed law, voted upon by the California electorate, passes by a slim margin, amending the state’s constitution so that it identifies the institution of a legal marriage as being only between one man and one woman. The initiative’s passage invalidates California’s previously legal same-sex marriages. Those unions are later “grandfathered” back to legal legitimacy, but no further same-sex marriages can be performed in the state.


Gay College Student Tyler Clementi Commits Suicide

Gay student Clementi begins sharing this part of his life with the people he is close to during the summer after his high school graduation, just before beginning classes at Rutgers University. At college, Clementi’s privacy is invaded when his college roommate sets up a webcam to spy on him. Viewing his roommate’s Twitter feed, Clementi learns he has become a topic of ridicule in his new social environment. He ends his life several days later.


Catholic Archbishop Leads Group to Promote Traditional Marriage

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone chairs the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, which “assists the bishops and State Catholic Conferences in promoting and defending the authentic teaching of the Church regarding the nature of marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman directed to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.” This blog post states the subcommittee’s position.


After Obama Supports Same-Sex Marriage; Ad Urges African Americans Not to Vote for Him

The National Organization for Marriage launches a radio ad urging African Americans not to vote for President Obama, in response to his support of same-sex marriage. NOM President Brian Brown says, “President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage, his administration's determination to repeal DOMA and the Democratic Party’s call for the repeal of North Carolina’s marriage amendment puts Obama at odds with the values of the African American community.”

same-sex marriage

Maine, Washington, and Maryland Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

These three states join other states and a district that have previously legalized same-sex marriages (Massachusetts in 2004; Connecticut in 2008; and Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and D.C. in 2009).


State Senator Leads Vigil Supporting Traditional Marriage

NY State Senator Reverend Ruben Diaz leads an all-night vigil sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage. Pentecostal ministers and members of the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization travel to Washington, D.C. to join the “March for Marriage” demonstration in front of the United States Supreme Court. Says Diaz of his participation in the event, “We believe marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s as simple as that.”

protesting same-sex marriage
A demonstrator's sign supporting traditional marriage. Source: Elvert Barnes,

Starbucks Gets Flak for Supporting Same-Sex Marriage

Chelsen Vicari, a Concerned Women for America staff member, writes a blog post blasting Starbucks for its support of same-sex marriage. A 2010 article on the CWA site poses this question about same-sex marriage: “Will we protect marriage as the primary institution protecting women and children, or will we surrender to the forces that claim no one has obligations to others and that adults can do anything they want…regardless of how those actions affect society, especially children, and undermine the public good?”

Jenna Wolfe Comes Out

Showing just how much the act of celebrities coming out has changed since Ellen DeGeneres’ experience, “Today” weekend anchor Jenna Wolfe appears on the program to reveal that she is pregnant, and that she is dating her colleague, NBC foreign correspondent Stephanie Gosk. Wolfe’s sexual orientation seems to be considered the least noteworthy part of her announcement, with her pregnancy framed as a bigger deal than the gender of her partner. Wolfe is congratulated by her peers including Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Savannah Guthrie.

Supreme Court Strikes Down Part of DOMA

After being addressed by appellate courts, a challenge to DOMA (and an attempt to defend Proposition 8) reaches the Supreme Court.

  • In June 2013, the Court strikes down a key piece of DOMA. The decision is 5-4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing the majority opinion. Four justices join Kennedy’s majority opinion, and four justices file or join others' dissents. Very broadly speaking, this meant that federal marriage benefits could now be extended to gay couples who are legally married in their states. The ruling does not, however, establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
  • In addition, the Supreme Court dismisses an appeal that attempted to defend Proposition 8, CA’s voter-approved ballot measure barring same-sex marriage. The ruling clears the way for same-sex marriages to resume in CA.


The Supreme Court Rules that Same-Sex Marriage Legal in All 50 States

  • It was a 5-4 decision.
  • Justice Anthony Kennedy, seen as a pivotal swing vote in the case, wrote the majority opinion. All four justices who voted against the ruling wrote their own dissenting opinions: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
  • "They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law," Kennedy wrote of same-sex couples in the case. "The Constitution grants them that right," according to a story on


Article by Jason Tomaszewski, Education World Associate Editor
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