"I can't go that far; that's the year 2000! Negroes [and whites], okay. But that's too far!"
—President Richard Nixon on gay marriage, speaking in August 1970; quoted in John Ehrlichman, Witness to Power
No one knows the names of the first gay couple to exchange wedding vows. You should keep that in mind as same-sex marriage becomes law in New York: The earliest milestones on the road to marital equality were made quietly, privately, and far from any civil authority. The public recognition of gay unions emerged gradually, reaching wider and wider circles until finally even governments started climbing aboard. Contrary to the rhetoric you still hear from some of the idea's opponents, gay marriage was not cooked up in some D.C. laboratory and imposed on America by social engineers. It was built from the bottom up, and it was alive at a time when the typical social engineer thought homosexuality was a disease.
Members of the same gender have been coupling off for centuries, sometimes with ceremonies that look rather marital to modern eyes. Here in America, gay marriages predate the modern gay rights movement. Six years before Stonewall, the 1963 book The Homosexual and his Society described informal gay weddings where "all the formalities of [a] legally certified and religiously sanctioned ceremony are aped with the greatest of care." Those unions didn't always last (the authors noted that it "sometimes takes no more than a week or two" before the lovers "recall that their marriage has no legal, religious, or moral sanctions" and take off), but as the resilience of the euphemism longtime companion suggests, a match between two men or two women could be as lasting and loving as any heterosexual coupling. As gay life became more visible, so did those permanent partnerships, and as social tolerance of homosexuality grew, more people accepted the partners' marriages as real. In 1992, long before any state recognized gay marriage as a legal right, Suzanne Sherman could fill a big chunk of a book by interviewing gays who had married and officiants who had blessed their unions. Such marriages were eventually honored by institutions outside as well as inside the gay community. By 1993, the list of companies that allowed domestic partners of the same sex to share benefits included Microsoft, Apple, HBO, Warner Bros., and Borders. By 2007, gay couples who wanted to get married at Disneyland were free to purchase the Fairy Tale Wedding package.
The numbers on public support for gay wedlock show a slow but steady surge of support for the idea. A decade and a half ago, according to Gallup, just 27 percent of Americans thought gay marriage should be legally recognized. This year the figure was 53 percent. It is often suggested that this sea change reflects the fact that more Americans know people who are openly gay. While I don't doubt that that's a major factor, I think another change is important too: More Americans know people who are openly gay and married. If you mentioned gay marriage to the average American three decades ago, he would have thought you were making a joke or spouting a science-fiction scenario. (Indeed, three decades ago the science-fiction comedy Airplane! 2 included an apparently married gay couple as a throwaway gag.) Today gays living as married are a part of everyday life, whether or not those unions have been licensed by the state. If you're an American, there's a reasonable chance that you've met a committed, cohabiting gay couple, and whether you like the duo or not it should be hard to see them as a threat to the sanctity of marriage. After all, they want to get married. That isn't necessarily true of the cohabiting straights who live next door. The gay couple may even want to have kids—and with restrictions on gay adoption falling away, that option is ever more possible.
And so a social institution took hold: first among gays themselves, then in the larger community and marketplace. Finally the government took notice. Judges started upholding gays' right to wed each other, then legislatures began to come around. In many places the foes of gay marriage have pushed back through ballot initiatives, a path that isn't open to them in New York. But even where a public referendum is possible, it's probably just a matter of time in most states before the votes against same-sex marriage just won't be there. As Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips recently pointed out in the American Political Science Review, it's the youngest American adults who show the strongest support for gay marriage. The strongest opposition is in the demographic that will be next to die off.
So I give credit to the legislature of New York, which just made life easier for gay couples who want to adopt a standard marriage contract. But even more than that, I give credit to the couples themselves, and to all the couples who came before them. They're the ones who started this revolution rolling.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.