Pride Month 2020: A timeline of the legalization of same-sex civil unions in the US

'They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right,' the US Supreme Court said while declaring same-sex marriages legal in all 50 US states in 2015

Pride Month 2020: A timeline of the legalization of same-sex civil unions in the US
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Throughout the 19th century, being gay or homosexual was not publically acceptable, to the extent that same-sex unions – of any kind – were considered a punishable offense. If anyone was found to be openly professing their sexuality as queer they would either be detained or would have to answer to the law. Even places for LGBTQ+ sanctuary, which mainly comprised underground clubs and recreational establishments where people were allowed to be themselves, were often raided by the police. It was considered sinful – how could a man love a man, a woman love a woman – simply because it supposedly "went against the laws of nature".

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But homosexuality has been subject to discrimination and scorn since much before the 19th century until the unfolding of the Stonewall Riots paved way for major developments in the LGBTQ+ community in the late 1960s. Also referred to as the Stonewall uprising or the Stonewall rebellion, these incidents were a series of spontaneous, riot-like demonstrations by members of the LGBTQ+ community in response to a police raid that took place in the wee hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. Patrons of the Stonewall, other lesbian and gay bars, and neighborhood street folk fought back when the police became violent. These actions are widely considered as the most important events leading to the gay liberation and modern fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. While the community now had some freedom, they weren't completely out of the woods because neither homosexuality nor same-sex marriages were legal. 

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In the late 1990s, a state-level legalized concept was installed, which allowed same-sex couples to not only cohabit without being married, but also gave them access to benefits. Same-sex civil unions became a form of domestic partnership and only exists in a handful of US states. 

What is a same-sex civil union?

A civil union is a legally recognized union of a same-sex couple, complete with rights and responsibilities similar to those in a marriage. However, the civil union is only recognized by the state, and does not provide any kind of federal protection. 

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Bob Sodervick holds a gay pride flag outside of San Francisco City Hall on June 17, 2008 in San Francisco, California. Same-sex couples throughout California are rushing to get married as counties begin issuing marriage license after a State Supreme Court ruling to allow same-sex marriage (Getty Images)

How a civil union is different from same-sex marriage?

While many assume that same-sex marriages are interchangeable with same-sex civil unions, that is not the case. People get into marriages with the intention of binding oneself to someone they love and being committed to them for life, but it is also a legal status that comes with rights and responsibilities. It establishes a legal relationship between a person and their spouse, which is recognized across all cultures, countries and religions.

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Unlike in civil unions, if one were to marry in any state, their marriage would also be legally recognized if they moved to another state. However, in the US same-sex couples are issued marriage licenses, which authorizes both partners to share finances, benefits, and insurance, depending on state rules. 

A timeline of the legalization of same-sex civil unions in the US

(Getty Images)

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Same-sex couples have had to face many hardships to come as far as they have today, particularly in terms of legalization.

The Clinton administration in the 1990s made some drastic changes in the law, with regard to homosexuality, such as the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' military policy, which declared that as long as a person, who identified as homosexual did not openly profess their sexuality, they were allowed to serve in the military. This law reigned for 17 years until its repeal in 2010. In addition, President Bill Clinton also signed the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, which banned the federal recognition of same-sex marriages and even defined marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife."

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Three years later, in 1999, in a momentous legal victory, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples should be given the same rights as heterosexual couples. This marked the beginning of a new phase in LGBTQ+ history. The following year, the State of Vermont ruled that same-sex couples will also be able to enter into civil unions. Then in 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that banning same-sex marriages is unconstitutional, making it the first US state to legalize gay marriage.

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California passed a domestic partnership law that allocated same-sex partners with almost all the rights and responsibilities as spouses in civil marriages. That same year, President George W Bush championed for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In 2004, the city of San Fransisco began issuing licenses for same-sex marriages, openly challenging Californian law.

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The Washington Post conducted a nation-wide poll and concluded that 51 percent of respondents favored allowing same-sex couples to form civil unions. The California Legislature later passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriages, which was among the first to be sanctioned without a court order. However, it was vetoed by California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. New Mexico and Portland, Oregon, started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples too.

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Same-sex couple Ariel Owens (R) and his spouse Joseph Barham walk arm in arm after they were married at San Francisco City Hall on June 17, 2008, in San Francisco, California (Getty Images)

In 2005, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled for the state to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry in Connecticut making it the second US state to make same-sex unions legal. Later that year, Washington State approved of same-sex marriages in a court decision, while the California Supreme Court nullified same-sex marriages. Several other states started initiatives to ban same-sex marriages.

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A New York judge deemed the states ban on same-sex marriages as illegal. The New Jersey Court issued orders to the legislatures to recognize same-sex unions in 2006. The Iowa Supreme Court overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage in 2009, as Vermont's legislature called for the legalization of same-sex marriages. Maine and New Hampshire was next to follow, though the voters in Maine later repealed their decision to allow for same-sex marriage. In 2010, Prop 8, California's voter-passed ban on same-sex marriages was declared unconstitutional.

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President Obama declared DOMA unconstitutional, in 2011, just as New York legalized same-sex marriage. The following year, Washington State, Maine, and Maryland followed suit in legalizing same-sex marriages by popular vote. Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Mexico legalized same-sex marriages in 2013, while the US Supreme Court regarded Section 3 of DOMA that highlighted the definition of marriage as unconstitutional. Furthermore, it decided that the backers of Prop 8 lacked standing which paved the way for same-sex unions to be legalized in California, and Utah's same-sex marriage ban was also declared.

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Amy Snow and Christelle Snow, who married in April, show their wedding rings as they celebrate the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015, in West Hollywood, California (Getty Images)

In 2014, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Kansa, and South Carolina legalized same-sex marriage, with the Presbyterian church voting to all same-sex ceremonies. The US Supreme Court declared same-sex marriages legal in all 50 US states in Obergefell v Hodges, in 2015. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were", said the Supreme Court, whilst concluding the case.

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"As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right," the US Supreme Court concluded.

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