(In These Times) -- Not long ago, same-sex marriage in America was not merely an unpopular cause; it was a politically fatal one—a third-rail issue that could end the career of any politician foolish enough to touch it. The idea that gay and lesbian couples would be able to legally exchange vows in states throughout the United States was regarded, at best, as a far-off fantasy and, at worst, as a danger to the republic.
It can be difficult to remember how hostile the terrain was for LGBT advocates in even recent decades. As of 1990, three-quarters of Americans saw homosexual sex as immoral. Less than a third condoned same-sex marriage—something no country in the world permitted. In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman and denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, passed by an overwhelming 85-14 margin in the U.S. Senate. Figures including Democratic Sen. Joe Biden voted for it, and Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the act, affirming, “I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages.”
When the Vermont Supreme Court ruled to allow civil unions in that state in 1999, Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer called the decision “in some ways worse than terrorism.” The decision, which was reversed by the state’s voters, sparked nationwide backlash. As recently as 2004, conservative strategist Karl Rove, seeing a potent wedge issue, pushed to have “marriage protection” amendments placed on the ballot in 13 states. All of these passed, in what one newspaper called a “resounding, coast-to-coast rejection of gay marriage.” Ambitious conservatives with their eyes on higher office—such as future Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—campaigned aggressively for the bans. The goal of marriage equality seemed doomed.
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