This year, the cake mix company Betty Crocker donated custom cakes for the first same-sex marriages in Minnesota. At DC Comics, Batwoman is engaged to marry her longtime girlfriend. Ellen DeGeneres—only 15 years ago jeered as “Ellen Degenerate” for coming out—is the queen of daytime television, where she regularly mentions her wife, Portia de Rossi. She’s also a Cover Girl model—the official public face of the Girl Next Door.
You know you’ve won when the companies that sell to the mass market of middle America are hurrying to show that they’re friendly to your cause. But there are many other signs of victory for lesbians and gay men. Only 17 years ago, in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act was passed to protect the country against “promiscuity, perversion, hedonism, narcissism, depravity, and sin,” as then-congressman Gerry Studds summarized what he’d heard during the hearings. Today, any such language would sink the career of a national politician.
Meanwhile, we are speeding toward full marriage rights for same-sex couples throughout the country. This past June, the Supreme Court declared that the federal government must recognize all state-sanctioned marriages, including same-sex marriages, and in a procedural move, flung open marriage’s doors to California’s same-sex couples as well. Last fall, the citizens of three states passed laws making it possible for same-sex couples to marry, while another two rejected attempts to ban or undo marriage equality. The total number of marriage-equality states is now 13—or 14 if you include New Mexico, where the most populous counties are currently performing such marriages. Realistically, advocates believe they can win another 10 states by 2016.
Increasingly, people will get a chance to see how ordinarily boring we are, reducing the stigma attached to coming out as gay.
The marriage equality fight isn’t over, by any means. The rest of the states, including those most hostile to gay rights, have constitutional or statutory bans on recognizing same-sex pairs. But the momentum is clear to all. Roughly 55 percent of Americans now say they favor legal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry—the national group most involved in winning hearts, minds, legislation, and ballot measures (as opposed to court victories) on marriage equality—recently told me that he believes we will see full national marriage rights within a few years, “if we do the work,” as he always adds.
To understate the case, when we win full marriage rights nationwide, it will be a transformative moment, both practically and symbolically. Once our marriages are legally recognized everywhere in the country, lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men—and children just beginning to realize that they might be heading in our direction—will be socially legible as ordinary human beings with the same hopes and dreams as our neighbors. Increasingly, people will get a chance to see how ordinarily boring we are, reducing the stigma attached to coming out as gay. In short, winning marriage means that, more and more, we will have formal equality.
So then what? Should the coalition of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people—the LGBT movement, for short—declare victory and disband? Once we can marry the person whom we love, are we done agitating for political change under the rainbow flag?
In a word, no. For starters, there are still policy areas beyond marriage to take care of. Among the more urgent: passing ENDA—the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, currently being marked up in the Senate—which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of federally forbidden reasons for firing or refusing to hire or promote, a move supported by 80 percent of the nation; battling back against the problematic idea, promoted under the phrase “religious liberty,” that anyone with a religious reason for not wanting to treat LGBT folks as fully human should be excused from following anti-discrimination laws; warming up the cultural climate in American regions where attitudes toward us lag; and reaching out internationally to ask those still being disenfranchised and brutalized in other countries and cultures how we can best help.
But beyond these projects, there’s a much larger cultural question that deeply deserves our country’s attention. It has to do with gender: the way our culture, our politics, and our legal system treats femininity, masculinity, and everything in between.