History of Gay Marriage in the USA

Updated March 20, 2019
Two happy brides

The history of gay marriage in the United States involves many battles fought and won over decades. After dozens of lower court rulings on the topic, the United States Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015 that all states must allow marriage between same sex individuals. Since that day, gay marriage has been legal across the country.

How Gay Marriage Became Legal in the USA

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that defined marriage as between one many and one woman. He later called for the overturning of this law, stating that he felt the law was "incompatible with our Constitution." Eventually, the Supreme Court agreed, but it took nearly 20 years for that change to occur. Here's how it happened:

  • 2003 - The Massechusetts Supreme Court issued a ruling that stated that banning same sex marriage was against the Constitution.
  • 2004 - San Francisco, California began issuing marriage licences to same sex couple, although the 4,000 resulting same sex marriages were later nullified by the state's Supreme Court.
  • 2004 - Massechusetts became the first state in the USA to officially legalize gay marriage.
  • 2004 - Eleven US states passed laws to define marriage as solely between one man and one woman.
  • 2005 - Several more states passed similar laws.
  • 2009 - Vermont and Maine both legalized same sex marriage, but voters in Maine repealed the law. Washington, DC voted to legalize same sex marriage.
  • 2012 - Maryland enacted a law to legalize gay marriage in that state, while North Carolina added a ban on same sex marriage to its state charter.
  • 2012 - US President Barack Obama officially endorsed gay marriage.
  • 2013 - Rhode Island and Minnesota legalized same sex marriage.
  • 2013 - The United States Supreme Court ruled that parts of the DOMA violated the Constitution.
  • 2014 - Several state amendments banning same sex marriage were ruled as unconstitutional by US District Courts and Federal Courts of Appeals.
  • 2015 - The US Supreme Court heard the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, and ruled that same-sex couples can marry.

Some of the Earliest States to Allow Gay Marriage or Civil Unions

Same sex marriage was a contentious issue for many years, but a few states were pioneers in enacting laws or enforcing court rulings to allow same sex couples to have civil unions or legal marriages. They include the following.


Massachusetts was one of the first states to permit gay marriage or civil unions. Same-sex couples were able to get marriage licenses starting in May 2004. The first wedding ceremonies were performed shortly thereafter. The way was cleared for this policy when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in February of that year that it was a violation of the state constitution to bar gay couples from being married. State lawmakers seek to amend the constitution to put a ban on gay marriages, but when the state legislature recessed in November 2006 without voting on the issue, it effectively died on the order paper.


Although Connecticut did not allow gay marriage until 2008, same-sex partners had the option of entering into a civil union that gave them rights that are similar (but not identical) to those given to married couples. Connecticut was the first state to develop a policy to create civil unions without being instructed to by a court of law.

New Jersey

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in October of 2006 that gay couples had the same rights as straight ones. Legislators were given a six-month period in order to review the law. With respect to use of the word marriage regarding same-sex couples, the court was unable to find that gay couples had the fundamental right to marry under the terms of the constitution. However, New Jersey officially legalized gay marriage in 2013.


In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court issued a ruling that same sex couples should have the same civil rights a heterosexual couples. They could apply for a license, which was similar to a marriage certificate. This document gave them the same rights as married couples with respect to health benefits, life insurance, and custody of children. Ten years later, in 2009, gay marriage officially became legal in the state.

An End to Decades of Court Battles

The road to legal gay marriage in the USA has been long and very bumpy, but the Supreme Court's ruling put an end to decades of court battles and controversy. Now same sex couples can enjoy the same right to celebrate their love and make it official as their heterosexual counterparts.

History of Gay Marriage in the USA