The Best Year Ever for Gay Rights in America

Today's Supreme Court decisions mean 30 percent of Americans live in a state where gay marriage is legal.

Michael Knaapen, left, and his husband John Becker, right, embrace outside the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and declined to reinstate California's Proposition 8. As a result, gay marriage will be legal in America's most populous state, and gay couples legally married in their states will enjoy federal benefits such as joint tax filing and inheritance rights.

The decisions -- greeted by a jubilant crowd on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington -- cap off an epic year of progress for gay-marriage advocates. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 13 states, more than double the number from just a year ago. Thirty percent of Americans now live in a state where gay couples can legally marry, and nearly half live in a state that recognizes gay relationships in some form, be it marriage or civil union.

"Our country's movement on this issue has been nothing short of breathtaking," said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of the center-left think tank Third Way, who compiled these statistics. "The country has come to realize that we should not stand in the way of couples who want to make that commitment [of marriage], and today's decisions ensure that our laws reflect that principle."

Public opinion has moved quickly, with slim majorities in most national polls now saying gay marriage should be legal. Last May, President Obama embraced the issue, becoming the first American president to favor gay marriage -- and, with his reelection, the first to campaign successfully on a pro-gay-marriage platform. In November, four states voted in favor of gay marriage -- the first-ever wins for gay marriage at the ballot box. Previously, more than 30 states had voted to ban gay marriage. Recognizing the tide of public sentiment, politicians from both parties have also changed their positions on the issue in recent months.

Advocates believe the shifting public tide and the court ruling are not unrelated -- that the Court would not impose something the country didn't seem ready to accept. And while the decision is a boon for gay rights, it was not as sweeping as it could have been. Whether out of caution or legal reasoning, the Court did not take the radical step of making gay marriage legal nationwide, as it theoretically could have done.

But it's stunning to realize how far gay marriage has come in such a short time. When the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996, a Democratic president and 85 senators supported it, and there was not a single state where gays could be legally married. Even in 2008, when Californians approved Prop 8, gay marriage was only legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut, imposed by judicial fiat in both states; not a single legislature or referendum had approved it.

What a difference a few years makes. "It seems it is only a matter of time," Erickson Hatalsky writes, "before all committed couples can make the lifetime promise of marriage, and receive full state and federal recognition of that relationship."